The One and the Ninety-Nine

ewe aint one

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, Numbers 12:1-16, Romans 2:12-24, Matthew 18:10-20Psalms 97; 147:12-20, Numbers 12:1-16, Romans 2:12-24, Matthew 18:10-20


“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.”
– Mr. Spock, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

“The needs of the one … outweighed the needs of the many.”
– Captain Kirk, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Humankind has always struggled to balance individual need against the need of the greater community. The modern tool of choice is economic system: capitalism, socialism, communism, etc. Lying along a continuum from individualism to collectivism, these models have achieved various levels of success – if measured economically. Measured spiritually, all fall short because they are not ends, but means. How do we approach this struggle of knowing what and when to sacrifice?

Sacrificial living does not necessarily lead to a literal cross. In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd leaves behind ninety-nine sheep to find one. Fine if you’re the one, but most of us are among the ninety-nine left on the mountain. Do we grumble about being temporarily inconvenienced and blame the one’s misfortune on its own failure to keep up? Are we willing to sacrifice a little convenience so the one may survive? Often our answer depends on whether we’ve chosen freely or been coerced … but the shepherd doesn’t bother to survey the sheep.

Sacrifice is valued mostly via lip service. We “sacrifice” trips to the movies or our usual pricy selection at Starbucks to keep our debt down or to save for our children’s college. Rarely outside the military are we asked to make true sacrifices in the sacred sense of giving without expecting anything in return. Or maybe the opportunities are abundant but we value merit over mercy. Does the shepherd seem concerned with whether he is giving the lost sheep “a hand up or a handout?” Are we prepared to make the real sacrifices necessary to save the lost in our society? Because in the end, the hands up demand more personal cost in time, money and comfort than do the handouts.

When it’s our turn to be the one sheep, how will we want the ninety-nine to respond? That’s what we should be prepared to sacrifice.

Comfort: No matter how lost you feel, Christ is searching for you.

Challenge: Remember that lost sheep started out part of the flock. They are family, so their burdens are our burdens.

Prayer: Merciful God, I trust you to find me when I am lost. Amen.

Discussion: When you’ve felt lost, how did you know God had found you again?

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Speechless

speechless

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, Numbers 11:24-33 (34-35), Romans 1:28-2:11, Matthew 18:1-9


“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Jesus followed up these words with his famous teaching of tearing out an eye or removing a hand if it causes us to stumble away from him. He doesn’t mention the tongue, but it seems logical if our tongue causes us to stumble, we should tear that out also. The tongue may be doubly dangerous, as it can cause others to stumble also.

When our tongues tell people the church hates them (even when we’ve convinced ourselves we’re acting in love), they may find it impossible to believe Christ loves them. Too often the church focuses on a particular subset of sins (usually sexual in nature) and targets the people who commit them until they feel driven from the rest of the community. Paul warns us in Romans that by casting judgment on others, while we ourselves remain sinful, we condemn ourselves. Effectively we say: “Your visible sin is too terrible to tolerate, but my personal sin (which flies under the local radar) is more acceptable.”

Don’t think that’s true? Well, the church hasn’t developed a conversion therapy industry around unrepentant greed, and we don’t distribute scarlet J’s for judgment. Yet the greedy and judgmental can feel perfectly safe in a church that creates a climate hostile toward gay people and unwed mothers.

We are all sinners working toward transformation through Christ. We don’t always agree on what is sinful; that has been true for the entire history of the church, but the church survives because we work it out together. Scripture directs us to hold one another accountable, but the gossip-monger is as accountable as the murderer.

Repentance is a journey we take together. If we oust everyone who doesn’t meet someone else’s standards, soon the church will be empty. Better to enter the kingdom speechless than to have talked one of God’s children out of salvation.

Comfort: God loves you.

Challenge: God loves everyone else, too.

Prayer: Loving God, make me an instrument of your peace. Amen.

Discussion: How has your understanding of sin evolved as your faith has matured?

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Monkey Meat

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, Numbers 11:1-23, Romans 1:16-25, Matthew 17:22-27


“The Monkey’s Paw” is a short story about a mystical artifact (a mummified monkey paw) that has the power to grant three wishes. You are probably familiar with some of the numerous film, television, or other adaptations of this story. The paw twists the wisher’s intent to grant their desires in horrible and disturbing ways. One man wishes for a sum of money, and receives the exact amount as a settlement for his son’s accidental death – the ultimate “be careful what you wish for” moment.

After the Israelites had been wandering the desert for a while, many of them grew tired of eating the manna God provided. Manna was basically boiled into a cake, and people wanted meat. God – displeased with their lack of faith and gratitude – told them they would get meat “until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you.” While God is not malevolent like a Monkey’s Paw, there are still consequences for not wanting to work with the world as God has provided it to us.

Paul’s letter to the church in Rome addresses people who exchanged their understanding of God for something that was more to their liking. In a sense they wished for God to be different in a more worldly and decadent manner, then proceeded to act as if their wish had been granted. The consequences of dissolute living degraded their bodies, minds, and spirits.

As Christians we believe in resurrection and transformation. To many people that may seem like wishful thinking, but we trust that through Christ and the Holy Spirit, God transforms our hearts and our world. Though we must be careful not to get ahead of ourselves and confuse what we hope for with what God is doing. When our endeavors don’t go our way, we assume they have failed. When the Spirit moves through people we can’t bring ourselves to call righteous, we reject their words and efforts. But God creates evangelists from bounty hunters and prophets from murderers … and he doesn’t always clean them up to our satisfaction first.

We don’t change the world by following wishes, but by following Christ. If that’s too bland for our tastes, or not bland enough, we can wish for something different. But in the end, our own wishes taste loathsome when compared to the fruits of the Spirit.

Comfort: Resurrection, better than any wish, is unfolding all around you.

Challenge: When making plans, periodically and prayerfully check in to make sure you aren’t confusing your ideas for God’s.

Prayer: Thy will be done. Amen.

Discussion: Can you recall any experiences in your life when you wanted something and God wanted something better?

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Learning from Fools

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, Numbers 9:15-23, 10:29-36, Romans 1:1-15, Matthew 17:14-21


After Israelites fled Egypt, the Lord instructed them to build a tabernacle (a tent or dwelling place) where he could reside with them. During the day the Lord appeared above the tabernacle as a pillar of clouds, and in the evenings he appeared as a pillar of fire. When the cloud moved, the people knew it was time to pack up the tabernacle and the rest of the encampment and follow it to the next destination.

The Lord knew it was important to be visible to the people of Israel all the time; they were frightened and fickle and needed reassurance of his constant presence. As God he owed them nothing, but as a creator loving his creatures, he chose to be present in ways they could understand.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes: “I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.” Paul also understood the importance of tailoring his approach to the realities of a situation. In his case though, it was a two-way exchange. To share the gospel he adapted his style (but not his message) to reach his listeners, but he also understood the gospel more deeply as a result of listening to them. Admitting he owed something to fools took real humility.

How flexible are we when attempting to share the gospel? Is our approach more an agenda or an invitation? How about when we evaluate the quality of a worship service that doesn’t align with our preference in musical or pastoral style? Do we try to learn from the differences, or do we work on justifying our preconceptions? Are we at all willing to hear the wisdom of those we consider foolish?

Too often the church approaches evangelism like colonialism, where we play the “advanced” civilization forcing a particular vision on  ignorant barbarians. If Paul was flexible enough to learn from those he sought to teach, we should be too. Whether communicating inside the walls of the church, or taking the gospel to the streets, humility is the key to living the message.

Comfort: You don’t have to have all the answers to share the good news.

Challenge: Listen to some religious music that’s in a style you don’t especially like. Try to transcend the style to hear the message.

Prayer: God of the living gospel, I humbly seek to share Christ’s message of salvation, and to listen to the needs of your children. Amen.

Discussion: In what ways do you find it difficult to be flexible?

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Fear of Success

MuchRequired

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Numbers 6:22-27, Acts 13:1-12, Luke 12:41-48


“Fear of success” doesn’t sound like something that should happen, but it’s a common psychological challenge. Success represents change, and there are numerous reasons we consciously and subconsciously fear change. In many ways failure can be less fearful because it means remaining in familiar territory.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus touches on what it means to succeed: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

Does that kindle a little fear in your heart?

When we do well personally and professionally, we say we have been blessed. While that’s true, we also need to realize we have been burdened. Though it’s cliched, we need to ask ourselves whether we are paying it forward. The motto of the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA) is: “Lifting as We Climb.” This organization focuses its efforts on a specific community and profession, but  it embodies the responsibilities that come with success.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a wealth of money, time, or talent, but we must not get caught in the trap of thinking what we have earned is what we deserve. No matter how much success we earn, we fall short of “deserving” God’s love and mercy, yet God gives them to us freely. If Christ is our example, and he gave up his life for the salvation of our undeserving souls, how can we claim the right to hold on to anything we’ve earned? How can we look down on those who have not “earned” what we hold but they need?

Personal accountability is not something we impose on strangers (though we should expect and encourage it), but a standard to which we hold ourselves. It’s not measured by what we’ve socked away for retirement, but by how proportionately we’ve used what’s been given and entrusted to us to meet the requirements and demands of faithful service.

Success means change. If that change happens, and much is demanded of us, will we be more afraid of being broke or being broken?

Comfort: How you account for your generosity is between you and God.

Challenge: “Responsibility” can become an excuse for mean-spiritedness. When you are deciding whether to give time, money, or talent to those in need, consider what it says about your character as least as much as you consider theirs.

Prayer: God of mercy, teach me to use my gifts wisely and generously.

Discussion: How do you arrive at a balance between generosity and practicality? How concerned do you think Jesus is with the practical?

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The Handmaid’s Fail: Fundamental Errors of Mercy

Well that took a turn.

A couple days ago I had worked out in my head an outline for a post on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. More specifically, about how some (self-identified) conservative commentators have characterized it as liberal fantasy and anti-Christian propaganda, or in an even further stretch as an indictment of the collectivism of the left. Due to the timing of its premier, many people all over the political spectrum have chosen to interpret the material as a comment on the Trump administration, though the first season of the series follows very closely the novel upon which it was based – and which was written during the Reagan Era. The author herself has said the Republic of Gilead (which she has named her dystopian America) is a product of neither conservatism nor liberalism.

I have recently become a big fan of the show and wanted to discuss the merits of its production and performance without bringing any references to the current administration into it at all. I thought reasonable people of different political and cultural understanding could discuss and recognize what seeds of this dystopia we could agree not to let root in America.

Then the Attorney General of the United States cited Romans to excuse immoral actions of the state.

My perspective took a turn. A hard turn.

Not Conservative

I’m what some might call liberal. And what others might call moderate. Unless someone far to the left of Rachel Maddow is elected president, I’ll probably never be labeled a conservative.

But I’m not so biased that I can’t admit none of the actual people I know who do think of themselves as conservative are represented by the fictional architects of Handmaid’s horrors. Sexual servitude is not a conservative value. Enforced caste systems are not a conservative value. Institutional hypocrisy is not a conservative value.

Traditional Western conservatism, like any political theory, has its pros and cons (which is which may vary by your personal outlook) but the people who truly study, understand, and embrace it are not by definition villains. Sure I could point to countless stories of conservative (or liberal) politicians and leaders caught up in scandals of corruption and hypocrisy, but that’s a product of politics and power, not conservatism.

The evil in Gilead is an entirely different beast.

Not Christian

To find an anti-Christian bias in Handmaid, I believe you have to watch with the assumption it exists, because – despite plenty of Old Testament quoting – it’s not there.

I’ve seen all the episodes (which is not necessarily true of everyone who chooses to comment in favor of or against it) and I’ve noticed the writers are very intentional about not having practitioners of the state religion of Gilead mention or quote Jesus. One scene in particular drives this home. Before dinner, a familiar grace is said: “Bless us O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which are about to receive from Thy bounty…” and then it stops. It lacks the traditional ending: “Through Christ, our Lord..”

You know who does mention Jesus? Offred/June, our series protagonist. She says a prayer of protection and blessing over the scene of a massacre, and ends it with “in Christ’s name. Amen.”

The character whose red uniform has been borrowed by “liberals” as a symbol of oppression speaks of Jesus and angels to commemorate and mourn the dead. The oppressors can’t seem to reconcile Christ to their theology. That doesn’t say to me the writers are interested in bashing Christianity.

What is it then?

So if Gilead isn’t conservatism or Christianity run amok, what is it? It is (and I’m certainly not the first to say this) a fundamentalist theocracy. And like real-world fundamentalist theocracies, it starts from a familiar scripture which it then cherry-picks and twists to support the absolute authority of its civic leaders – who of course manage to find excuses to exempt themselves from the burden of the rules they use to crush others.

And like many fundamentalist theocracies it exploits the fear surrounding crises both real (in the world of Handmaid, toxic pollution and global infertility) and imagined (people unlike us are the source of our problems). Regressive fundamentalism expresses a desire to “return” to a set of values and norms which never actually existed. The only Christ-related message Gilead seems to cling to is the idea of removing a body part if it causes you to sin, except a) they are literal about it in a way Jesus never intended, and b) instead of self-regulation it’s the state that enforces the lopping, chopping, and plucking.

So if it’s not really Christianity or conservatism, why is it interpreted so?

Fundamentally Ruthless

Fundamentalism is not limited to conservative religions or ideologies. It occurs anywhere people decide their specific point of view must be enforced at all costs. Dress, speech, and reverence of symbols is prescribed and not only can one be punished for failing to follow that prescription, one can be punished (often worse) merely for questioning the system. Questions are the most threatening things of all, because once we allow discussion and analysis of ideas, no fundamentalism survives.

Yet even in the United States there are people who promote and long for a fundamentalist theocratic state. There’s a call to return to Christian values, as if Christian belief and practice is monolithic and unchanged in its expression. For the record, it’s not and never has been. It started with Peter, Paul, and James in stark disagreement over many basic issues and is all over the map today.

But when it comes to fundamentalists, Christianity itself is almost beside the point.

Somewhere in the human psyche, there’s a desire for the seeming order that fundamentalism provides. Certain people rally around it because it satisfies a tribal instinct which requires the “othering” of both outsiders and insiders who question the tribe. The instinct is not partisan. It makes our problems about the failings of other people and minimizes self-reflection. Its application is necessarily ruthless. From shunning to honor killing, mercy is removed from the equation. 99% adherence is 100% insufficient.

This is the exact opposite of what Christ taught. He certainly never suggested Christianity be forced upon anyone. Yet in the United States, a country where freedom of religion is a guaranteed right, there is an ever louder voice wanting to prescribe speech (the “war on Christmas”) and reverence for symbols (if you kneel during the anthem “Maybe you shouldn’t be in this country.”) There’s no question there is also a fundamentalist strain of liberalism which needs to be checked (no matter what you think of Ann Coulter and her execrable ideas she has the right to express them), but it lacks the  coercive religious component which claims to add the fate of your eternal soul into the mix.

When relative moderates align themselves with extremists to achieve political or social goals, chances are more likely that the extremists will influence the moderates than the moderates will constrain the extremists. It’s a lot easier to irritate an extremist, and they’re more willing to walk away from the table. The concessions to civility and human rights that such an alliance requires are almost never worth it in the long term. Thus we have conservative giants like George Will bemoaning the current state of conservatism, the Republican Party and this administration in particular.

The Handmaid’s Trail

Which brings me back to our Attorney General (and Press Secretary) using Romans 13 to justify enforcing the unjust, state-sanctioned practice of separating children from their parents – while conveniently ignoring plenty of other verses specific to the treatment of aliens and refugees. Now that I’ve seen the connection to Handmaid, I can’t unsee it.

First, our government is not based on the Bible, or any religious text. Specifically. And intentionally. The individual constitutions of the first thirteen colonies were based in thirteen different (and conflicting) flavors of Christianity. To become a union (which was ironically opposed by English loyalists citing Romans 13…) we wisely ditched theocracy. Bringing it back is a Gilead-style move.

Second, Romans 13 is not a call to enforce unjust laws. Remember that Jesus guy? He was crucified for sedition. He refused to bend to the prescribed speech of the Roman empire. He violated Sabbath laws. He valued mercy and principle above fundamentalism and paid the price for it. Your hands aren’t tied by Romans 13 unless you want to call Jesus a bad example. You’ll never hear the Commanders of Gilead quoting Christ’s calls to mercy above law unless it serves their desires.

Third, it’s hypocritical. Administrations (local, state, and national) prioritize what laws to enforce and how to enforce them all the time. Nobody opposed to same-sex marriage cited Romans 13 when Kim Davis refused to do her legal duty as an employee of the state, or when Joe Arpaio defied the Supreme Court. Inconsistent and hypocritical application of scripture is Gilead 101.

Finally, throwing up your hands and crying “What can I do?” in the face of injustice – especially when you’re one of the few people in a position to do something about it! – is about as unchristian as it gets. You can choose not to do the unjust but legally required(?) thing and pay the price of following Christ’s merciful example. You can decry the horribleness of a situation, confess how you have contributed to it, and repent by finding another way. A difficult or unattractive option is still an option; choosing it when it’s the right one is a matter of character.

There is always the option to the do the right thing and look for another solution. Declaring “this is terrible but I have to because the law” – when it’s something you really want to do anyway (or not doing so will exact a price you are unwilling to pay) – and then improperly quoting scripture to justify it, is not Christian. It’s not conservative. It does not show integrity.  It is a dangerously fundamentalist theocratic thing to do. It’s one of the basic conflicts in every episode of Handmaid, most dramatically addressed when Offred/June and the other handmaids refuse to stone one of their own, while the representatives of the faith insist it must be done because it’s the law and order must be preserved. If there was only some way to know which side of that dispute Jesus might land on…

No Balm in Gilead

Does anyone believe Jesus would say “Keep locking up those kids. Blame your predecessors and the refugees for tying your hands. Just don’t cause them to stumble.” To me that’s begging to be fitted for a millstone collar.

There are lots of things Jesus has to say about what we might be doing in this situation. Things like doing good to your enemy, and taking care of the least among you, and welcoming strangers. None of them coincide with unnecessarily ramping up a program you claim to disagree with and causing additional trauma to already traumatized parents and children. None of them require adherence to unjust man-made laws. They do require creativity, compassion, and a willingness to lay our political (and sometimes physical) lives down to a higher purpose.

A Christianity that doesn’t inconvenience you but tells you exactly how to detain, punish, or oppress everyone who isn’t following the rules  isn’t Christianity. It’s fundamentalist theocracy. It’s a pious yet somehow Christless Gilead.

No matter our political stripe, we must resist the temptation to ally ourselves with fundamentalists and theocrats. Because once we ride such an alliance to victory, we’ll find that insatiable beast hasn’t been tamed … we merely happened to be going in the direction it wanted to go, and now we’re being dragged along for the ride and holding on lest we also be trampled.

The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t show us the end result of conservatism or of Christianity, but of fundamentalism. If we’re currently having as much trouble teasing those things apart as the Attorney General and his ilk would seem to hope, perhaps we should remember the whole premise of the Tale hinges on children being taken from mothers trying to survive desperate situations.

All legally.

And all declared the will of God.

Why Thee?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, Numbers 3:1-13, Galatians 6:11-18, Matthew 17:1-13
Evening Psalms 125; 90


Psalm 90 – the only psalm attributed to Moses – is written from the perspective of someone trying to make sense of it all at the end of a long life. The psalmist doesn’t sugar coat life’s difficulties. He prays the good days might at least outnumber the bad, and acknowledges that the lucky get 80 years of toil and trouble. Yet he prays for God’s work and its meaning to be manifest in the community.

The wise do not wait until the end of their lives to contemplate the meaning of work and suffering, nor do they wait until suffering is upon them. It’s tempting to keep the suffering of others at a certain emotional distance because identifying with it too closely forces us to admit it could happen to us. Distance feels safe, but leaves us ill prepared when God does not exempt us from disease, infidelity, loss, or other tragedy. Suddenly what we saw as part of God’s plan for another person becomes a crisis of faith in our own lives.

If we spend time now asking “Why them?” and “How would you have me respond?” we are less likely to be spiritually devastated when it’s inevitably time to ask “Why me?”

The psalmist doesn’t offer concrete answers to his questions, but the context gives us some clues about where those answers may lie. The questions are universal, and he asks them not about anyone in particular, but about the community. The work is not the work of any one person, but of the community. The meaning of the work transcends any single life or generation. Despite all Moses did to lead the Israelites, he never set foot in the promised land. Any satisfaction Moses gained from his efforts came from the knowledge he had played his role in the greater plan.

When it’s our turn to suffer – and we’ll all have our turn – the question “Why me?” overwhelms us if we can’t see ourselves as but one part of the whole of creation. If we’ve lived a self-centered life divorced from the story of the community, meaning will be difficult to find. Like words chosen by a skillful poet, each of us is complete, important, and beloved by God, but part of a greater work.

Comfort: You are an important piece of your community, supported by and supporting all the other pieces.

Challenge: See above.

Prayer: Loving God, grant me the patience and wisdom to encounter suffering with a heart of mercy and solidarity. Amen.

Discussion: What types of suffering do you identify with? What types do you find difficult to deal with?

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Feedback Loop

bear burdens

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 148, Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:14, Galatians 5:25-6:10, Matthew 16:21-28


A few days ago we considered how we might be receptive to criticism. Today let’s flip that script and think about how we can most constructively give feedback.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote: “[I]f anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” He also said we are called to bear each other’s burdens. As a culture we seem to have grown increasingly comfortable with providing immediate feedback via social media, comment boards, and even in person to strangers. Unfortunately, we are less adept at the “gentleness” part. Name calling, snap judgments, and attention-grabbing vitriol fill our internet, television screens, newspaper pages, and radio waves.

These types of reactions aren’t really about the other person; they are about satisfying our own sense of righteousness.

There are times when firm reactions are called for. When Peter tried to discourage Christ from his journey to the cross, Jesus responded with: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” This may sound harsh, but he spoke with unmistakable intent because what Peter was tempting him to do was unmistakably in error.  He explained what needed to happen in order to reconcile his disciples to the necessary future.

A single incident or flaw almost never defines a person. Peter was still Jesus’s rock. We need to remember that so we don’t seek mercy for ourselves but punishment for others. Bearing each other’s burden includes making an effort at reconciliation. Character assassination is not part of that process. Can we imagine Jesus launching a Facebook dogpile designed to publicly humiliate Peter? Naming hurtful behaviors is necessary, creating more of them is not part of the reconciliation formula. That may not seem “fair” by worldly standards, but Jesus teaches forgiveness and self-sacrifice, not retaliation.

If we aren’t in a position to offer restoration, we aren’t in a position to offer rebuke. Perhaps we can better use that time pulling the logs from our own eyes.

Comfort: Compassion and rebuke can coexist.

Challenge: If you have social media accounts, try not expressing negative opinions for a week.

Prayer: God of restoration, help me bear the burdens of my community with the help of your Spirit. Amen.

Discussion: When have your received or offered constructive criticism?

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Doubt, Pray, Love

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 26; 30, Ecclesiastes 11:1-8, Galatians 5:16-24, Matthew 16:13-20


No matter how strong our faith, we eventually have a day – or perhaps an achingly long series of days – when God seems far away. We don’t talk about those days much. Rather, we feel pressure to put on a brave face. Expressions of doubt during a Bible study prompt our friends to offer arguments for belief which are probably more about their reassurance than ours. A minor breakdown during prayer time is viewed as unseemly and inappropriate, maybe even fodder for parking lot gossip.

Loss and weakness are fine to discuss if we’ve already overcome them, but no one likes to watch the sausage being made. A story of beating a gambling addiction? Testify! A confession about how your ongoing blackout drinking leads to promiscuity? Better save it for the 12-step meeting. We talk a good game about brokenness, vulnerability, and healing but we really want to skip right to the “after” photo because the “before” mugshot is too upsetting.

The Psalms tell a different story. Many of them describe how we can be simultaneously faithful and in a wretched state. The author of Psalm 130 is crying out to God from the depths of despair. He recognizes his own failings and shortcomings. He finds himself unable to do anything but wait for the Lord and hope for the best. He still puts his trust in God but he’s not putting up a brave front.

Questions, moments of weakness, and despair do not demonstrate a lack of faith. They are the times that tell us whether we had any faith in the first place. Like the psalmist, sometimes the best we can do is beg God to get us through the darkness while we hunker down and hang on until daylight.

A healthy faith community will offer a safe space to rail against injustice, struggles, and the seeming distance of God. It will face darkness head on but shine a light into it. Since communities are made of people, the responsibility of creating such space then falls on each of us. We can be ourselves when we allow others to do the same.

Comfort: God is big enough to love you through your anger and doubt.

Challenge: It can be difficult to navigate when to express our pain and when to keep it to ourselves. Read this piece on how not to say the wrong thing.

Prayer: Loving God, my source of strength and security, thank you for weathering my doubts and fears. I will trust you to see me through this and all days. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever found relief after sharing something you had been keeping to yourself?

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A Little Yeast

solve through love

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 147:1-11, Ecclesiastes 9:11-18, Galatians 5:1-15, Matthew 16:1-12


Paul fought diligently to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. He argued with Peter and James that there was no need for Gentiles to observe Jewish laws, since Christ had fulfilled the law and freed us of its chains. Imagine his dismay when certain members of the church at Galatia –which he founded! – began teaching circumcision was a requirement.

Paul’s response may be summed up as: “You were fine when I left you – what happened?! If you require this one law for justification, you will effectively bind yourself to all of them, and Jesus’s sacrifice becomes meaningless for you. Stop listening to these bad apples; they are spoiling the bunch!” More specifically: “A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough.”

Jesus also compared bad teachings to yeast.  To appreciate the analogy, we must remember that during Passover Jews ate only unleavened (yeast-free) bread to commemorate their flight from Egypt; even a tiny bit of yeast could rapidly grow to contaminate the whole batch and  make it unusable. At first Jesus was irritated because the disciples thought his words about yeast were a rebuke because they forgot to bring the bread, so he explained exactly what yeast – the contaminated teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees – they needed to be wary of.

What varieties of yeast threaten our faith communities today? What elements which start out tiny can – if left unaddressed – spread to ruin the whole batch? They are numerous and extend beyond bad doctrine. Bullies become more bold when we fail to address them. Cliques can form almost undetected until they are exclusive enough to be hurtful. Apathy toward justice issues saps the sense of mission. Political litmus tests (spoken and unspoken) may start to send messages about who the “real” Christians are. Left unchallenged, expressions of bigotry taint the character of the congregation.

Ignoring a problem when it’s small so we can “keep the peace” only allows it to fester and spread. Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is the ability to resolve conflict through love. Let’s diligently pursue true peace before it becomes impossible to do so: once the bread is baked, the yeast can’t be removed.

Comfort: Conflict does not have to lead to division.

Challenge: When unhealthy behaviors threaten your community, speak up but speak up with love.

Prayer: Loving God, grant me the wisdom to know which battles to fight for the good of your gathered people. Amen.

Discussion: Are you helping spread any yeast by ignoring it?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people.