Everything Old Is New Again

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 98; 149, Isaiah 26:1-6, 2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2, John 8:12-19


Scripture challenges us to look at our fellow human beings from a different, often counter-intuitive perspective. In John and 2 Corinthians, Jesus and Paul tell us we need to stop seeing the world “according to the flesh” and start looking at it according to the spirit. Many people have taken this use of “flesh” to mean our bodies are evil, and somehow at war with our spirits—a sort of dualism that pits us against ourselves. Rather, Jesus and Paul use “flesh” as a metaphor for those things in the world that separate us from God. Sometimes that may mean our physical desires, but the desires themselves serve a purpose; our job is to direct them properly. Scriptures similarly use the word “world”—but God created and loves the world, just as he created and loves our bodies.

When Jesus tells us to see things according to the Spirit, what might that mean? It means we aren’t to judge anyone. Even Jesus—who is able to judge—has chosen to judge no one. This is a paradox of our faith: those who should not judge do, and those who could choose not to. Of course we should be discerning in our associations and circumstances, but judgment is strictly God’s purview. Any time we judge someone, we are seeing with the flesh, and not the spirit.

Paul tells the Corinthians that when we free ourselves from a human point of view, we will see Christians as new creations. The lack of judgment of others, from others, and of ourselves frees us to be entirely new. Ironically, it is this lack of need to conform to or impose worldly righteousness that transforms us into Christ’s righteous ambassadors.

In Christ we find not a religion—defined by those who measure up and those who don’t—but relationships. Immersing ourselves in Christianity takes courage, the courage of pioneers entering the wilderness of humankind and blazing trails to true relationship with others. Our true north is love. Our path is not the same as anyone else’s. Our adventure takes us places we can’t yet see.

Comfort: Your faith does not have to look like anyone else’s.

Challenge: When you judge people, forgive them and yourself.

Prayer: God of infinite love, lead me through the wilderness of faith. Amen.

Discussion: Are you more likely to judge others or yourself?

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Our Daily Apocalypse

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 93; 148, Isaiah 25:1-9, Revelation 1:19-20, John 7:53-8:11


Isaiah 25 looks toward the day when “God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth.” Today’s reading from Revelation introduces John’s vision of Christ’s victory over the evils in the world. Both are standard Christmastide readings, as we celebrate Christ’s arrival in the world. To which victory of the Lord do these readings refer?

Ancient people read scripture with a different sense of time and meaning than we might. For example, we read the Lord’s Prayer as the present-tense: “give us this day our daily bread.” In Greek, this prayer uses the aorist tense, a kind of “once and for all” tense signifying not just the present, but the unfolding future as well. While Isaiah’s vision was about the eventual restoration of a Jewish people exiled in Babylon, early Christians co-opted it to tell of the coming Messiah. This approach might seem odd to modern sensibilities, but for people of the time it was part of understanding that God’s plan of salvation unfolds in the past, present, and future.

Isaiah 25 is an early example of apocalyptic literature. Revelation is also apocalyptic literature. Typical of the genre, both blur the lines between the past and the future. Apocalyptic literature is not so concerned with historical accuracy or specific prophecy as with the idea of the cosmic story of salvation. Time is fluid in these writings because God is always revealed anew to us, and the world is always being remade.

Apocalyptic literature invites us to dwell in the mystery of God’s unfolding plan, better expressed through visions and dreams than facts. The events have already happened, yet are still to happen. This paradox offers confidence that change will come, because it has come. During the Civil War and Civil Rights eras, African-Americans and their allies found inspiration in apocalyptic themes, which assured God’s eventual deliverance. Though mysterious, these themes were comforting.

If we read Isaiah only for the past, or Revelation only for the future, we miss the message of what God is doing today.

For additional thoughts on today’s reading from John, see Thud!

Comfort: God’s plan is unfolding—and we are part of it.

Challenge: Watch the news for modern stories of God’s deliverance.

Prayer: O timeless Creator, thank you for your people’s dreams and visions. Amen.

Discussion: Are you able to see Christ’s work as both complete and continuing?

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Don’t Shoot the Messenger

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 147:12-20, Isaiah 12:1-6, Revelation 1:1-8, John 7:37-52


When we receive a message, we evaluate it from different angles. We consider the source, the delivery style, and the content. We may ask ourselves: Is the source reliable? Is the delivery sincere, sarcastic, or something else? Is the content believable? Because we are used to handling communications efficiently, we may also mistakenly assume we handle them competently. In most cases this may be true, but if we’re not paying attention we can be manipulated – or unwittingly manipulate the message ourselves.

In John 7 Jesus delivers a message meant for both the uneducated crowds and the highly educated Pharisees, to varying effects. The crowd loves him; the Pharisees want to find a reason to arrest him. At the very least they want to dismiss him because he comes from the backwater town of Galilee. When their fellow Pharisee Nicodemus points out that Jewish “law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing,” they suggest Nicodemus must be also be from Galilee to discredit him. While the Pharisees fume and fuss, they have no legitimate reason to reject the message other than “I don’t like it.”

How do we react to messages we don’t like? Does that reaction depend on the source? If we are told at work we have performed poorly, does our reaction depend on whether it comes from a co-worker, superior, or subordinate? Should it? Certainly we should be critical of messages we hear, but first we need to be willing to hear the content, regardless of the source. If our first response to a negative message or criticism is: “Who do you think you are?” … there’s a good chance we are unfairly negating a source to avoid unpleasant content. It is a human and understandable reaction, but leaving it unexamined diminishes our integrity.

This effect pervades all levels of society – families, businesses, government, religion, etc. Like Nicodemus, when faced with it we should challenge it. In a just society, valid content is considered fairly regardless of the source. Let’s welcome truth wherever it is found.

Comfort: Truth will serve you well.

Challenge: Pick a story in the news, and read different perspectives about it – particularly from sources you’re not prone to agree with. Do they reveal any truths?

Prayer: Loving God, help me to discern your truth amid all the noise. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever had to grudgingly agree with someone about information you didn’t like but was true?

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!

Faith Like a Child

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 2; 147:1-11, Isaiah 49:13-23, Isaiah 54:1-13, Matthew 18:1-14


When his disciples asked Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” he called over a child and replied, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” What trappings of adulthood cause us to stumble? Pride? Possessions? Whatever they are, we need to cut them from our lives like the offending hand or eye Jesus warned us about.

What does it mean to be humble like a child? It means realizing we are completely dependent on God for our well-being. Everything we have – treasure, talents, even time – is a gift from God. It also means admitting we have little if any control of anything beyond our own behavior. Ego and guilt can easily convince us we are somehow responsible for fixing the world’s problems, when the truth is most of what we can do is clean up our own rooms. We shouldn’t use that as an excuse to duck responsibility, but as a guide to creating healthy perspectives. Insisting on our own way, when that way comes from the narrow understanding of our own experience, can create one of those “stumbling blocks” Jesus warned against. We are to welcome each other as children, because we are all the children of our Creator.

Maybe being child-like grants us a little license to be annoying. Most children go through a “Why?” stage, where every answer they receive is met with another round of “Why?” They are eager to understand the world, and don’t settle for the first answer they receive. We should be just as eager to pepper God with the tough questions as many times as we need to. Some of them will never be answered to our satisfaction, but what we learn by pursuing those answers is invaluable. Be wary of spiritual leaders who have simple answers but discourage tough questions.

Child-like faith isn’t about naivete or ignorance, but about realizing it is more important to be humble than to be in control.

To read other perspectives on this passage from Matthew see The One and the Ninety-Nine and Hands, Eyes, and Butterflies.

Comfort: You don’t have to control everything.

Challenge: You can’t control everything.

Prayer: Creator God, I am but a child before You. Thank you for all you do for me. Amen.

Discussion: What does child-like faith mean to you?

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!

Love One Another

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 34; 146, Proverbs 8:22-30, 1 John 5:1-12, John 13:20-35


Though the Christmas season lasts through Epiphany (January 6), once the celebration of the Nativity is over, the lectionary readings don’t waste any time getting back to serious business. The day after Christmas we read about the first martyr, and today we read about the Last Supper and the betrayal of Judas. Do we long just a little for an emotional break, a few days to bask in the glory of Christ’s birth?

Except that’s the thing: there really is no break. No matter how strong our faith, life is a mixed bag.

Take the Last Supper. Jesus knows Judas is about to betray him, and Judas knows it, too. But the Last Supper is also the origin of Communion, which unites us with Christians across time and place. And it also gives us these words from Christ:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Think for a moment what it means that this was a new commandment. What were the disciples doing during all the preceding years they’d been following Jesus? Were they surprised he felt the need to say it out loud to them? Perhaps it’s a lot harder to do – and comes a lot less naturally to us – than we think.

What a gift that commandment is though. When we practice it, that love is a constant, steadying presence in the ups and downs of life. When we practice it, that love helps us celebrate with each other, mourn with each other, and support each other through difficult times. More than agreeing with one another or liking one another, loving one another with the sacrificial love of Christ is a conscious choice. Whether we obey or disobey, it tells people whether we are disciples.

Life in Christ, at least in our present world, will always be a mixed bag. No matter our state, let us choose to love and be loved. Jesus said so.

Comfort: Christ’s love is constant.

Challenge: Listen to They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love.

Prayer: Merciful God, source of all love, teach me to love your children as Christ loves me. Amen.

Discussion: Are you able to love someone you don’t like?

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!

Stephen the Leader

Caracci, Annibale – The Stoning of St Stephen – 1603-04

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 116; 145, 2 Chronicles 24:17-22, Acts 6:1-7, Acts 7:59-8:8


On December 26, the Western church observes St. Stephen’s Day (the Eastern church observes it one day later). Stephen was the first martyr of the church. His fellow Greek Christians chose him for leadership when a dispute arose between them and the Hebrew Christians. The leaders of the early church not only preached the gospel, but served the needy – particularly widows – by providing food and financial support. As the church grew, twelve apostles were no longer enough to meet the need and the Greek widows were slipping through the cracks. The Hebrew Apostles asked the Greeks to select seven of their own to serve in this role, and Stephen was the most prominent among them.

It seems these seven were not limited to service, as Stephen was publicly accused of blasphemy for preaching the Gospel. Despite his impassioned witness on behalf of Christ, he was stoned to death. Like his savior, Stephen asked God to forgive his persecutors. His death kicked off a great persecution led by Saul (later Paul). Those who were not dragged off to prison scattered and spread the faith throughout Western Asia.

Stephen didn’t seek leadership, but when called to it he faithfully embraced his responsibilities and his God even when they led to his death. He could have stuck to “waiting tables” – as the twelve apostles (kind of condescendingly) referred to the delivery of the agape meal (or Lord’s supper)  – but he didn’t think one less important than the other. We remember Stephen not only for his martyrdom, but for his true dedication to servant leadership.

Stephen is an excellent benchmark for choosing our own leaders, and for modeling our own leadership style if we are called. He committed to doing what was necessary, not what was glamorous or safe. He was brave, and to the end he chose to reflect love and grace, rather than hatred and anger, toward his persecutors. When we look at leadership in the church, how many Stephens do we see? If it doesn’t seem like enough, remember it was the people who chose him. Change is up to us.

(For another take on St. Stephen, see Martyrs Vs. Victims)

Comfort: Everyone can help make the church better.

Challenge: Talk with people you respect in leadership positions. Ask them what they find challenging, and how you might support them.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for all the martyrs and saints who helped build Your church. Amen.

Discussion: What traits do you look for in a leader?

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!

Incarnate

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 2; 150, Zechariah 2:10-13, 1 John 4:7-16, John 3:31-36
Christmas readings:
Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12), John 1:1-14


Many powerful words have been written about the Incarnation, that is the coming of Christ into the world. We celebrate it on Christmas with song, light, food, and gifts. According to Luke, angels appeared to announce the Christ child and wise men traveled far to honor him. Every year the truths and traditions and myths and merriment surrounding that event remind us its wonder.

Most new parents only feel like the fate of the world rests on their decisions. Imagine being Mary or Joseph, and knowing you were responsible for raising the Son of God. Imagine being in awe of the holiness of this child.

How many dirty diapers did it take to dull that shine?

The gospels say little of the childhood of Jesus. There was his Home Alone moment when his parents lost him for three days, but that turned out all right. Childhood and adolescence probably don’t add much to a messianic reputation. Potty-training and nose-picking. Tantrums. Hormone-fueled moodiness.  Acne. By the time the adult Jesus attended that wedding with his mother in Cana, she certainly didn’t treat him like a fragile, holy snowflake: “They’re out of wine. Do something already.”

And that’s the beauty of the incarnation. It frees us to see the holy in the every day – in the muck and mire. Our solidarity with the poor, the ill, and the grieving doesn’t exist so we can bring holiness into their lives: our job is to see the holiness already there and join hands with it. We create beautiful physical sanctuaries to represent our love for our God, but they are incomplete without the grimy, sweat-stained, tear-streaked spiritual sanctuaries we build around each other. We are incomplete if we never share in the holy, stinking mess of each other’s lives.

A wise person once told me children are cute so parents don’t kill them as teenagers. Enjoy this Christmas, this newborn Christ. Let these memories and feelings sustain you when Christ is more demanding, even unpleasant. Maybe then when you search for the face of Christ in others, the holy will be easier to see.

Comfort: God is everywhere.

Challenge: Examine whether there are situations your faith leads you, but you avoid because they are impractical or messy.

Prayer: Glorious Creator, may I see Your face in all of creation. Amen.

Discussion: What parts of Christianity do you find difficult?

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!

Shepherds

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 90; 149, Isaiah 35:1-10, Revelation 22:12-17, 21, Luke 1:67-80
Christmas Eve readings:
Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96:1-13, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)


The shepherd realized he’d been holding his breath, and so inhaled deeply. The air was still strange, full of aromas unidentifiable but seemingly familiar. The usual smells of sheep and pasture had begun to reassert themselves but a subtle perfume would linger for a long time.

Angels. They had seen angels. He didn’t even believe in angels.

Moments ago the sky had been lit with a host of them. As they approached, he and his fellow shepherds began to wonder aloud if it was some new, terrifying trick of the Romans – perhaps a detail dispatched to enforce participation in this new census. But up close – angels! And not with words of punishment, but words of hope:

“Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

Why him? he wondered. Why them?

Someone tugged his sleeve. Was he coming? They were going into Bethlehem to discover if it was true. They moved quickly in the cold night. Even late, the streets of Bethlehem were crowded with people walking, talking, even sleeping. There were several stables in town. Would they have to search each –

A baby’s cry cut through the night. They stopped, shushed each other to listen for it again. They followed his voice, but by the time they reached the stable he was quiet. The father stood between the door and his young wife and newborn son lying in a manger.

The mother, so young, so tired-looking, nodded her head and the father stepped aside, though he did not drop his guard.

It was true. The angels had revealed the Messiah to common shepherds. Not to high priests. Not to the governor. To those who made a life protecting the defenseless. Was this to be His way then? A savior of the meek and ordinary? Then he would need a particular strength. A strength that would keep him vigilant while others slept, that kept the predators at bay without succumbing to their wiles, that would compel others to go places that were frightening but necessary.

He would need a shepherd’s strength.

The young mother patiently listened to their story long past the time they should have departed. As they left the stable, the child cried once more.

The shepherd held his breath, savored the sound. When it is time, he thought, I will know your voice.

Comfort: I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.

Challenge: To be Christ-like, me must build our own shepherding strengths.

Prayer: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace! Amen.

Discussion: Is there a part of the nativity story that particularly speaks to you?

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!

Naming our Faith

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 102; 148, Isaiah 33:17-22, Revelation 22:6-11, 18-20, Luke 1:57-66


Many cultures believe names – and knowledge of names – contain power. In some cultures a person has two names: one for public use, and a private, secret name known to a few or maybe only the one who bestowed it. In other cultures, a person acquires a new name upon completion of a rite of passage into adulthood. As Christians we don’t revere names as magical, but we do recognize the importance of identity. Christenings and confirmations are powerful examples.

In today’s reading from Luke, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth follows the instructions of an angel and gives her son the name “John” (or more accurately the Hebrew Yôḥanan meaning “God is gracious”). Doing so defies the Jewish tradition of naming the child for a family member. People are so upset about this break in tradition they consult the child’s mute father Zechariah, but he stuns them when he confirms his wife’s choice by agreeing with her – in writing. This act frees him from years of silence that began because he didn’t believe an angel who predicted John’s birth.

This act of naming – like John the Baptist himself – signifies a change in tradition. It shatters expectations. John defines his own wild, confusing, holy identity as the herald of the messiah. As Christians, we too are in the business of defying society to forge identities in Christ. That statement may seem dramatic in a predominantly Christian country like the U.S., but cultural Christianity and life in Christ are separate issues. Jesus fish magnets, Christian radio stations, and Christian dating websites are a sign that in some ways Christianity has become identified more with a consumer brand than a faith identity. Some Christians avoid calling themselves “Christian” because of negative associations with scandal and hypocrisy. Even within the Christian community, we struggle against our own deeply ingrained traditions and expectations to seek the true heart of Christ, and are met with resistance and outright hostility from fellow Christians. When we have the courage to defy expectation and define our own names, our new voices – like Zechariah’s voice – can reclaim“Christian” for positive, meaningful, grace-filled ways.

Comfort: God does not name you as the world names you.

Challenge: With a small group, read and discuss The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne.

Prayer: God of Peace, name me as your servant. Amen.

Discussion: What does your name mean to you?

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!

Magnificat

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 18:1-20; 147:12-20, Isaiah 31:1-9, Revelation 21:22-22:5, Luke 1:39-48a (48b-56)


Shortly after she became pregnant, Mary hurried to the home of her older cousin Elizabeth in the Judean countryside. Elizabeth – who had recently and unexpectedly conceived a son who would be John the Baptist – was both thrilled and humbled that the mother of the Messiah would come to her. Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah was present, but silent; when he had expressed doubt to the angel who told him his wife would conceive, the Lord struck him speechless until after the child’s birth. In contrast, Mary – who had embraced her role in God’s plan – broke into a lengthy and beautiful prayer which we today call the Magnificat, or the Canticle of Mary.

Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months. Imagine a home with this pair of first-time mothers, sharing their dreams for their children. Did they worry together whether their husbands could accept and support them through what was to come? Could either of them have imagined the wonder, and horror, and glory that awaited their sons? John would be born first, have a successful ministry first … and die first. Just as our celebration of Mary eclipses our celebration of Elizabeth, the life of Jesus would eclipse that of John the Baptist. Yet all were essential to God’s plan. Based on the words of the Magnificat, it seems even in these most unusual circumstances hope filled that home:

[The Lord] has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

Does your story need a little hope right now? Like Mary and Elizabeth, do you find yourself in circumstances you couldn’t have imagined? God is at work. Maybe like Zechariah you can’t believe that, so can’t find the words even to pray. Or maybe like Mary you can’t help calling on a God who has promised good things. God is at work. If we can surrender to what is, and trust God for what will be – even if it’s not what we plan – we can find a way to live in hope. God is at work.

Comfort: God is at work..

Challenge: Read the entire Magnificat out loud tonight and each night through Christmas Eve.

Prayer: I love you, O LORD, my strength. Amen.

Discussion: If you had three months to visit a trusted friend or relative and discuss the future, where would you go and what would you talk about?

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!