Productivity

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 88; 148, Micah 6:1-8, Revelation 9:13-21, Luke 10:38-42


Search “productivity” on Amazon.com, and you’ll get more than 32,000 results. A few decades ago modern conveniences like microwaves, dishwashers, and computers promised to free us from the drudgery of labor. In reality, most of us have crammed that extra time, both at work and at home, with yet more tasks. In many industries productivity is measured in increments of seconds, and we learn to judge ourselves in terms of efficiency. The past was not necessarily better, but it was certainly simpler. Or was it?

When Jesus entered a certain village, Martha invited him into her home. Her sister, Mary sat at his feet and listened to what he had to say. Martha, distracted by many tasks, asked why Jesus didn’t seem to care she was doing all the work by herself. Jesus told her: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Remember that Martha extended the invitation. We don’t know what her specific tasks were, but they probably included what she thought were efforts to be a good hostess. Ironically, that seemed to involve everything but spending time with her guest. Was she really resentful of Mary, or was she frustrated that she couldn’t shrug off her own slavishness to productivity? We never learn how Martha responded, but one can imagine a moment of stunned silence as she realized she was complaining about a problem of her own making.

After we invite Christ into our lives, do we choose the one thing or the distractions? Is the bulk of our time at church spent tending the building or the flock? Are we too busy making sure people know we are Christian to actually model Christ? Is our prayer time filled with words or silence?

There is always plenty to be done, and we must make time for the doing, but we must also remember the doing is not more important than the being: being in the presence of God and God’s children.

Comfort: You can slow down. You can even stop once in a while.

Challenge: Make a list of the things you do simply because you think other people expect you to. What could you cross off?

Prayer: Eternal God, teach me to be mindful and present. Amen.

Discussion: In what ways have you created unnecessary work for yourself?

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Good Samaritan

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 143; 147:12-20, Micah 5:1-4, 10-15, Revelation 9:1-12, Luke 10:25-37


The parable of the Good Samaritan is so famous, a category of laws has been named after it. It actually began with a lawyer who tested Jesus by asking how to achieve eternal life. Since one of the criteria was loving your neighbor as yourself, the lawyer tried to justify himself by asking: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus then told the familiar story: a man is left for dead by thieves; a priest and a Levite (his people) pass him by; a Samaritan man bandages him up, takes him to an inn, and pays for his care. The now-familiar twist in this story is that Samaritans were bitter enemies of the Jews, but when Jesus asked who had been a good neighbor, the lawyer was forced to admit: “The one who showed him mercy.”

He must hot have been a great lawyer, because he let Jesus off the hook without an answer to the question. He asked: “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus told him a story about being a good neighbor, then followed it up with: “Go and do likewise.”

Jesus skillfully redirected the lawyer away from the wrong question … and toward the right answer. The man was really asking: “What’s the minimum number of people I need to love?” Instead of listing criteria he could exploit to exclude people, Jesus gave him a parable which taught him he needed to worry less about defining who his neighbors were, and more about redefining himself as a neighbor to all.

Are we showing neighborly mercy? Here’s a hint: if we show it only to people we feel have earned it, the answer is “No.” We can ask what people deserve, why we are being unfairly burdened, or how much is enough, but Jesus may not bother with our questions. He cares more that we listen to his answers. He wants us to redefine ourselves by those answers – to be a neighbor even when we are also an enemy. Merciful love is not a prize to be won; it is a grateful response to a God who loved us first.

Comfort: You don’t have to earn God’s love.

Challenge: People shouldn’t have to earn your love.

Prayer: Merciful and loving God,  may my heart, my words, and my deeds be a reflection of the infinite love you have shown me. Amen.

Discussion: Has someone you consider an enemy/rival ever surprised you with an act of kindness?

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Unlearning

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 65; 147:1-11, Micah 3:9-4:5, Revelation 8:1-13, Luke 10:17-24


It can be hard to tell when Jesus is paying you a compliment. Consider, for instance, these words he had for the disciples: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”

“Infants?” That must have drawn a little disciple side-eye. Jesus kept a supply of sharpened irony in his rhetorical toolbox.

The disciples had divested themselves of worldly interests and possessions and were following an itinerant, nearly homeless preacher endorsing a love so radical it bordered on naivety; they were about as far as you could get from the sophisticated and elite leaders of the world. The sophisticated and elite sought and held tightly to power – social, financial, and religious – in the vain hope it meant something. Our material successes will be meaningless and ultimately unfulfilling if we don’t understand them as means to serve a greater good, specifically the Kingdom of God. The greater our resources, the harder we must work to remain humble about their purpose and employ.

Jesus wasted no time tearing out any hint of worldly wisdom before it could take root in his disciples’ hearts. When they delighted in their own power to cast out demons, he told them: “Do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” A little earlier he’d had to set them straight about arguing over who among them was the greatest. Becoming truly wise and intelligent was a matter of unlearning what the world had taught them.

Of course not everyone who achieves worldly success is by default a spiritual failure. The ministry of Christ and his disciples depended in part on the support of people who had resources to spare. Homeless shelters and food banks need cash as much as they need volunteers. Wisdom knows our true joy, regardless of circumstance, is found in being citizens of God’s Kingdom. That joy frees us from worrying about looking wise or intelligent to the world, because we are children of God.

Comfort: You are not defined by your worldly status.

Challenge: Let yourself be a fool for Christ.

Prayer: Loving God, clear my head of the world’s ways, and fill it with Yours. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever held onto something that was bad for you, because letting it go might seem like failure?

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Two by Two

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 54; 146, Micah 3:1-8, Revelation 7:9-17, Luke 10:1-16


As Jesus prepared to expand his ministry, he selected 70 disciples to travel in pairs to the places he planned to visit. Today we might call them street teams. Each pair traveled simply; they carried no purse, no sandals, and no bags. They kept to themselves until they reached a destination, then where they were welcomed they stayed to cure the sick and where they were rejected they left promptly. Either way, they let the place know the kingdom of God had come near. If we assume three successful stops per pair, that’s 105 towns along a route of approximately 3,100 miles. Quite a grueling tour schedule when it’s mostly on foot.

How do you suppose Jesus paired people up? He could matched people who were already friends, or maybe they were random assignments, and people had to figure out how to get along with each other on the journey. Assigning people with similar personalities could make things easier or more difficult, depending on the personality. People with complementary personality types or experiences, while surely having to overcome some initial conflict, might be able to bring different strengths: introverts and extroverts; rich and poor; somber and playful; intrepid and cautious; cut-to-the-chase and touchy-feely. Perhaps he used all these criteria and more to build the most effective pairs possible.

On our own Christian journeys, we will find ourselves working alongside all kinds of people. We will like, respect, and enjoy each of them to different degrees. When, by example or intent, they expose our weaknesses, we can embrace an opportunity for growth. When we see them stumble where we stride easily, we can offer a steadying hand. We can hold each other accountable for getting the job done, and for grace. God has drawn us together, and it’s our job to work it out so we can credibly tell people the kingdom of God draws near. How we treat each other is a defining feature of that witness.

We are one body in Christ. A body isn’t walking unless one foot is on the ground and another is in the air.

Comfort: You are an important part of someone else’s journey.

Challenge: Pick a trait of yours that you think could use improvement. Talk to someone who is strong in that area about ways to improve.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for the many people you who support and guide me on my journey. Amen.

Discussion: Without mentioning names, is there a person you don’t particularly like but do respect?

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Scorched Earth

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 57; 145, Micah 2:1-13, Revelation 7:1-8, Luke 9:51-62


[A] village of the Samaritans […] did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
– Luke 9:52b-56

It didn’t take long for the disciples to become drunk with the power Jesus had given them. In their culture, refusal of hospitality was a much more offensive act than we would consider it today, but what about their experience with Jesus could have possibly led James and John to believe he would want an entire village utterly destroyed?

In hindsight the proposed Fireball of Vengeance was an over-reaction, but Christians still like to flirt with the possibility. Too often we approach Christianity like an imperial decree, and a reason to punish non-conformists. We want civil laws and corporate policies to reflect our Christian doctrines, and are willing to let the house (and the Senate) burn down before we will compromise to live peaceably with our non-Christian neighbors.

Codifying Christian values into law actually erodes faith by substituting fear of prosecution for voluntary submission to God. We should live out our Christian values (conservative, moderate, or liberal) regardless of civil law. Sometimes that costs us money, status, jobs, or even freedom, but Jesus warned us that would happen. We can’t bring an individual – let alone a nation – to Christ through victim-mentality legislation; we do so by offering a witness that shows how Christ has transformed our lives through grace and love, including love of our enemies (and not the punitive “for your own good” kind of love that demands nothing of us but everything of them).

Even in his confinement, Paul was an influential witness to Christ. In a nation that guarantees the greatest religion freedom in the world, let’s not be so ready to shackle ourselves to theocracy. A life lived in humble service to Christ and the least among us wins souls that religious scorched earth policies would destroy.

Comfort: You can live your faith regardless of what others believe and do.

Challenge: Treat your non-Christian neighbors (or Christian neighbors who believe differently than you do) as people who are also loved by Christ .

Prayer: Lord of Heaven and Earth, make me a bold and loving witness for Christ. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever excused your own less-than-Christian behavior because it was permitted under the law?

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Who do you say I am?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 67; 150, Micah 1:1-9, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Matthew 16:13-20


In first century Palestine, self-proclaimed messiahs were like coffee houses in Seattle: there was one on every corner, each claimed to be more authentic than the others, and most of them were overpriced. Jesus was different. According to Reza Aslan in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus stood out because he didn’t charge for his services, and he was reluctant to publicly use the title of Messiah.

When Jesus asked his disciples who people said he was, they answered: “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” When he asked them who they thought he was, Peter said: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus blessed him and said: “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” He then instructed the disciples to tell no one he was the Messiah.

Who do you think Jesus is? Is your understanding one you have developed by listening to God, or is it one handed down to you by other human beings? Of course we are introduced to our faith by other people, usually our parents though sometimes friends or other sources, but after they make the introduction, it’s up to us to develop the relationship. Think of your friends: who each one is to you may be very different from who they are to others. Just as a friend who goes on impromptu road trips with you may be a friend who is a reliable, steady support for someone else, the role Jesus plays in each of our lives may differ. Some of us need him to help reign in our darker impulses, and some of us need him to help us lighten up on our judgmental tendencies. We can need him in lots of ways at once, so it’s important that we don’t assume our relationship with him should look exactly like someone else’s. We all know the same Jesus, but our experience of him is unique and we can’t let anyone dictate what it should be like.

Comfort: Your relationship with Jesus is both special and communal.

Challenge: Have you asked yourself lately who Jesus is to you? If not, meditate and pray on that.

Prayer: Lord of Heaven, I am humbled and blessed that you have known me by name even before I was born. Amen.

Discussion: Has anyone ever told you that you were doing Christianity “wrong?”

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The B-Team

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 56; 149, Hosea 14:1-9, Acts 28:17-31, Luke 9:37-50


One day Jesus took three disciples up a mountain to pray with him. His appearance was transfigured to reveal his glory, the disciples were dazzled, and God said: “”This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” It’s a powerful moment with great theological significance.

This is about the other nine disciples.

While Peter, James, and John were with Jesus, the others were working on the mission Jesus had given them, including casting out demons. A man begged them to cast out the spirit who possessed his son, and caused him to shriek and convulse. The disciples, probably already feeling like the B-Team, couldn’t do it. Imagine the desperate and possibly heated brainstorming they had about how to get this done before Jesus came back.

Descending from glory to a scene of failure, an exasperated Jesus asked: “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” He attributed their failure to a lack of faith. Of course he healed the boy and returned him to his father.

How often, despite our best efforts to be strong in our faith, do we feel like the nine who were left behind, floundering to figure out what to do and how to do it? Are we jealous or resentful of the Peters who seem to be there for all the good stuff? We struggle to make a difference, and they seem to waltz right into it.

The original twelve disciples were not above such pettiness. They argued over which of them was the greatest, but Jesus wasn’t having it. Pulling a child to his side, he said: “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”

Our faithfulness is not defined by perfection and power, but by our ability to love as Jesus asks us to. If it keeps us humble, second string is a fine place to be. If the least among us are the greatest, maybe the mountain isn’t the top after all.

Comfort: God knows your heart and faith; what other people think doesn’t matter.

Challenge: Don’t compare yourself to others.

Prayer: Glorious Creator, I seek to serve you humbly and with love in my heart. Amen.

Discussion: Do you have control issues?

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Patterns

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 130; 148, Hosea 13:9-16, Acts 28:1-16, Luke 9:28-36


The human mind is wired to recognize patterns – visual, behavioral, and temporal. This trait is a survival mechanism: breaks from expected patterns alert us to potential danger. Now that most of us no longer need to detect predators on the savanna, our brains still want to impose patterns – that is, a sense of order – onto the thinPattgs we observe, regardless of whether it actually makes sense to do so.

The ship that was taking Paul to Rome ran aground on the island of Malta. The inhabitants offered hospitality to the stranded crew. As the new friends huddled around a fire on a rainy night, a viper which had been nesting beneath the fire tried to escape the heat by biting Paul’s hand. Paul shook it off into the flames, but the Maltese whispered: “This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.” When Paul suffered no ill effects, they reversed their decision and declared him a God.

Confirmation bias – a warped adaptation of pattern recognition – is the habit of interpreting events to support what you already want to believe. The Maltese wanted to believe only the guilty were punished, so the bite indicated evil … until it didn’t, and they created an outlandish excuse that supported their assumptions. Religious and political affiliations virtually require confirmation bias to survive, though the threats they perceive are not physical, but ideological.

A sneaky byproduct of our environment, confirmation bias is much easier to recognize in others than in ourselves. We all would rather feel safe than threatened, so we are not inclined to question false but comforting assurances. Simply put, we like to be right.

Faith, however, does not need to be right. Instead of twisting truth to fit our preconceptions, it frees us up to meet the world as it is, because we trust that however the world is put together, God did it and is fully present in it. We can see the patterns behind the mere shadows of patterns, the ebb and flow of the Spirit through our world.

Comfort: Faith will get you through difficult truths.

Challenge: Pick a topic you feel strongly about. Speak with someone or read something that represents the other side. Try to find common ground based in truth.

Prayer: God of truth and wisdom, may my opinions be humble and my thoughts pointed toward you. Amen.

Discussion: Where might your blind spots be?

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Stay Hungry

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 147:12-20, Hosea 13:4-8, Acts 27:27-44, Luke 9:18-27


We complain when we’re cold, hungry, thirsty, tired, or in pain but no one ever complains: “I’m just too … satisfied.” Yet satisfaction – or perhaps more accurately self-satisfaction – led to the downfall of the nation of Israel.

Through the prophet Hosea, God shared these words with Israel: “When I fed them, they were satisfied; they were satisfied, and their heart was proud; therefore they forgot me.” In other words, God provided for them in their time of need. They were provided for so well, they started to take it for granted. Eventually, because they were without need, they forgot about God altogether.

It’s a common story, really. When we are in need or distress, we pray and demand to know: “why do I deserve this?” When God provides, and our bellies no longer ache from hunger or our hearts from sadness, it’s easy to forget where we started. We take it for granted. If part of God’s blessing required hard work from us, we may start to give ourselves a little more credit for our own success than is due – and judge others who haven’t made it as far. Sure, we say we know we owe everything to God, but do we really? When is the last time we had a well-stocked kitchen, a happy marriage, and a stretch of good health and asked: “Why do I deserve this?”

Maybe we should stay a little hungry. The spiritual discipline of fasting involves a physical hunger, an unavoidable pang we can use as a reminder to focus our attention toward God. Whether it reminds us of our own dependence, or of the needs of those who hunger not by choice, it teaches us humility and gratitude. Other disciplines – study, solitude, service, etc. – also lift us from a state of oblivious contentment and help us not to take God for granted.

Let’s sacrifice a meal, a lazy Saturday morning, or twenty dollars to a higher cause. It’s all right to feel a little deprived of the more worldly satisfaction they might have provided. That pang reminds us to focus on what’s important.

Comfort: Gratitude will improve your mood.

Challenge: Make time daily to thank God for what God has provided.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for all the  blessings in my life. All glory and honor is yours. Amen.

Discussion: What do you take for granted?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group or follow @comf_and_chall on Twitter. You’ll  have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Crash Course

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 15; 147:1-11, Hosea 13:1-3, Acts 27:9-26, Luke 9:1-17


Imagine you are a sailor on the Mediterranean sea two thousand years ago. Your crew has been charged with transporting a prisoner from Jerusalem to stand trial before the Emperor in Rome. It’s almost winter, and many ships have already docked to wait out the angry weather until spring. Your captain though is eager to complete this voyage and sets sail. The prisoner has the nerve to suggest a delay. He is probably none too eager to meet his fate, you think. Trusting in your captain, the idols you’ve tucked into your bunk, and the value of your cargo, you set sail with the rest of the crew.

And then it turns out the prisoner was right. The swells are impossible to navigate. The ship stops a few times, makes reinforcements, but eventually finds itself helpless before the mighty wind. The crew curses as they throw cargo overboard and watch their profits sink. Then, in desperation, they toss over the tackle. The prisoner, damn his eyes, calmly tells everyone they will survive, but they’re going to have to run the ship aground. And you know he’s right.

The truth made Paul unpopular. No one likes the guy telling them they have to crash to survive. We especially don’t like him when he’s right. Once in a while we take a brave step out of the box and deliver the unpopular message, but more often than we are Paul, we are the sailor – or Pharisee – grumbling and ignoring that guy so we have more time to listen to the guy who tells us what we want to hear … even as things fall apart around us.

The truth is, sometimes you have to crash your ship – or throw profit overboard, or abandon your ideology, or wreck your comfort – to save your life. God doesn’t set out to ruin you, but if you’ve stubbornly stuck to the foolish course, the disaster may have to play out before you can move on. God will wait as long as it takes to find your safe harbor. The truth, however difficult, is your guiding star.

Comfort: When you decide to correct course, no matter difficult, we are drawing nearer to God.

Challenge: Plan a an hour of solitude each week to meditate on the direction your life is taking. Perhaps keep a notebook or journal of what you’d like to correct, how you might do it, what difficulties you might encounter, and your progress. End each session with a prayer of thanks to God for being with you.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for second, third, and fourth chances. Guide my steps so they might always lead me toward you. Amen.

Discussion: What efforts have you made to improve yourself?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group or follow @comf_and_chall on Twitter. You’ll  have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!