Invitation: Cross Traffic

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About five years ago we moved to downtown South Bend. We moved into a “transitional” neighborhood, which is what realtors call it when they think you’ll be concerned a lot of the neighborhood is not as white and wealthy as you are. We love living downtown, especially being able to walk places. Walk past the same people enough times, and you start to recognize them. If they’ve asked you for money and you’ve obliged, they start to recognize you, too.

One day I was walking back from the library when two men I didn’t recognize ducked into an alley I was about to walk past. One of them stood lookout, which seemed suspicious to me. Still I nodded at him as I went by, and he nodded back. Then he said, “Hey, mister!” I turned around mostly because I didn’t want anything at this point happening behind my back. “Do you have any cash to spare? My buddy is looking for food in the dumpster. I don’t want food from the dumpster.” I looked down the alley, and his buddy sure enough had one leg over the edge into the bin. I’ve been told before that giving cash just “enables” people (as though there are no drug addicts with well-paying jobs), but somebody could have a needle hanging from his tied-off arm and I wouldn’t want him to eat from a dumpster. I had $3 on me, so I gave it to him. He called to his companion that they could buy real food.

Some people who read this will think I made a bad call. They will think these guys could have gone to a food pantry or a homeless center. They may say these guys need to learn from the consequences of whatever decision brought them to this sorry state.

But I’ve learned something else from living downtown.

Our house is on a fairly busy street. Several less busy streets intersect it at two-way stops. Each one of these signs has a warning: “Cross Traffic Does Not Stop.” At least once a day, somebody ignores the warning and flies into the intersection. When they’re lucky we hear the screeching tires. When they’re unlucky we hear the sickening crunch and shatter. So far, thank God, no one has been so unlucky that we’ve heard the ambulance take them away.

My point is that the people driving on our street are following all the rules. They have no idea that life is about to plow into them at an intersection. The rules didn’t protect them. Following the rules is no guarantee of your safety – be it vehicular, physical, or financial. No one starts their day hoping to get into a crash. No one starts their life planning to eat from a dumpster either, but life can force us through some pretty nasty intersections. And sometimes it can bless us with an intersection that lets us help someone else.

We can sit in judgment of whether someone belongs at our table, or deserves to be at any table, but we’re all one bad intersection away from lost dignity.

Jesus said he came for the sick, not the well. If the only people we invite to the table are the people we think deserve it, we’re not ministering to the same people Jesus was. Turning people away from the communion table is like sending them to find dinner among the garbage. Sometimes you can’t make a good decision until you are relieved of the pain of hunger – be it physical or spiritual.

We all hunger for love and dignity. Christ offers it to us in bread and wine. Let’s share it generously.

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

Feed My Sheep

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 93; 150, Daniel 4:1-18, 1 Peter 4:7-11, John 21:15-25


The third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection, it was early morning and they were fishing from a boat and he was on the beach tending a fire. When they came ashore he offered them breakfast. After the meal, Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Three times Peter answered, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” though by the third time he was a little hurt. Jesus replied each time by telling Peter to feed and tend his sheep.

As they walked down the beach, “Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the [last] supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’” Peter seemed a little annoyed. Maybe that’s because he felt a twinge of guilt when he remembered the question. While Judas was the obvious betrayer, Peter – after saying he would never betray Jesus – denied him three times on the evening of the crucifixion. Afterward, he expected never to see Jesus again, much less to atone for his denials. In a bit of symmetry, Jesus gave Peter three chances to affirm that he indeed loved him.

We all screw up. Sometimes (parenting comes to mind) we screw up in the very act of trying not to. While apologies (if suitable) and reparations (if just) are appropriate, they aren’t the end of the fix. Jesus didn’t demand an apology or a penalty. Rather, he told Peter – the rock upon whom he would build his church – to take care of business. The best way to make amends to Christ, and possibly to almost anyone, is to listen to what matters to them and do what we can toward that end.

Mistakes don’t define you, but how you choose to recover from those mistakes tells you (and others) who you are. If you feel you’ve let down Christ, love him by feeding his sheep. If you’ve let down someone else, make it less about your guilt and more about whatever feeds their souls.

Comfort: You’ll make mistakes. God will love you anyway.

Challenge: Ask yourself whether you currently need to do any atoning, and what that would look like.

Prayer: God of the resurrection, make my life anew. Amen.

Discussion: What is the best apology you’ve received?

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Trial by Fire

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 92; 149, Daniel 3:19-30, 1 John 3:11-18, Luke 4:1-13


“Nebuchadnezzar was so filled with rage […] that his face was distorted.”
– Daniel 3:19

“You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
– Bruce Banner, aka The Incredible Hulk

Anger can transform us until we are almost unrecognizable. When Daniel’s friends defied King Nebuchadnezzar’s command to worship a statue, his rage affected his physical appearance. It can also suddenly and drastically alter our personalities and turn simple disagreements into longstanding feuds and inconsiderate highway maneuvers into deadly confrontations.

Anger often masks fear or sadness. Though Nebuchadnezzar had no obvious reason to be afraid, like every king he realized authority ultimately rests on the people’s willingness to accept it. Open acts of defiance threaten power. In our own lives anger can be a defense against the fear of losing a relationship, security (physical or otherwise), status within our group, or a sense of control. Where fear looks forward, sadness looks backward. When the grief of a loss which has already occurred threatens to overwhelm us, or when we feel forced to suppress it, it can come out as anger, frequently misdirected and over a long period of time.

Nebuchadnezzar threw Daniel’s friends into a furnace hot enough to kill the men who forced them inside, but his anger dissipated into astonishment when they, with the help of an angel, survived and emerged unharmed. Overcome with fear of the Lord, he decreed that none should blaspheme against God, and promoted the friends.

While we won’t face an actual furnace, we may have to endure a metaphorical trial by fire to love someone through their anger. We don’t have to tolerate outright abuse, but understanding where anger comes from can help us handle it differently. For example, if a co-worker’s anger catches us off guard, our reflex is probably to respond in kind, but it’s more productive to let them see Christ at work in us. We may never know what’s going on inside the person, because everyone has pain we don’t get to see. Responding to anger with love and faith may be the witness that helps someone see the promise beyond their pain.

Comfort: It’s permissible to express your fear and grief.

Challenge: Eventually you have to express your fear and grief.

Prayer: God of Love, teach me healthy ways to deal with my emotions. Amen.

Discussion: What makes you angry? Can you relate that to a fear or a sadness?

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Golden Rules

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 148, Daniel 3:1-18, 1 John 3:1-10, Luke 3:15-22


Separation of church and state is a very modern idea. In most monarchies throughout history, such as the Babylonian empire led by Nebuchadnezzar, the religion of the king became the religion of the people. Is there a more clear illustration of why this separation is important than when Nebuchadnezzar declared anyone who failed to fall down and worship the giant golden statue he’d built would be thrown into a blazing furnace? When Daniel’s three companions Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to do so, Nebuchadnezzar had them arrested and scheduled for fiery execution.

We can’t imagine such a scenario occurring in a modern democracy, yet some Christians would have the state impose specific Christian beliefs, while others think it already imposes too many. While “worship me or I will kill you” may seem like an abuse of power, it’s more an abuse of weakness. Any king, god-king, or theocrat who punishes disbelief with death does so from a place of deep insecurity. True faith and devotion hinges on an option for disbelief. God can sort it out as God will.

Daniel and his friends were conscripted into service for the empire. This certainly would have required them to participate in things they as Jews would have found distasteful, but they seemed to come to terms with serving as long as it didn’t require them to directly participate in the worship of other gods. How does this compare with the modern United States, where we find a seemingly endless parade of law suits filed over relatively minor issues because people feel religious practices have been either imposed upon or denied to them? In a country where the specifically Christian holiday of Christmas is given national preference over other religious holidays, yet the placement of a nativity scene on the town hall lawn is constitutionally suspect, squabbling is inevitable.

We should pick our cultural battles wisely. Our gospel message is stronger when we talk about how it has transformed us, rather than how it condemns others. Let’s not allow the politically ambitious to exploit our religious tendencies to create unnecessary (and unchristian) division.

Comfort: We don’t have to recreate the state in the image of the church.

Challenge: Read the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Prayer: God of justice, bring us peace. Amen.

Discussion: When have your religious beliefs conflicted with your employment or civic obligations?

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Ax to the Roots

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 47; 147:12-20, Daniel 2:31-49, 1 John 2:18-29, Luke 3:1-14


Considering how little effort he made to appease anyone, John the Baptist’s popularity was kind of surprising. He called the people who came to him for baptism a “brood of vipers.” He warned them to take no comfort in being descendants of Abraham (that is, of Jewish descent) since God could raise children to Abraham from the stones. He compared them to trees who were about to get the ax for bearing bad fruit.

Many people took God’s favor for granted because they were born into Judaism. They fell into the assumption that being (somewhat) observant Jews made up for a lot of other bad behavior. Are Christians much different today? It’s awfully easy to decide that if most Christians engage in certain behaviors, they must be acceptable. That sort of thinking is a dangerous trap. After all, Christians of the not-so-distant past (and some in the present) have used the Bible to justify slavery, domestic violence, bigotry, and war. These stances were not radical, but normal.

John told the people what repentance looked like: if you have a spare coat or meal, give it to someone who has none; don’t rip people off; don’t be greedy if you already have enough. As Christians we can look back in hindsight and wonder how these acts of decency weren’t obvious choices, but remember that it took nineteen centuries more for the western world to criminalize owning people and beating your wife. Just because lots of Christians do something doesn’t make it good and just.

In another one or two centuries, what things that today’s (somewhat) observant Christian does or tolerates will seem obviously unjust? Denying health care to people who don’t believe the same things we do? Finding new excuses to soothe our consciences when we turn away refugees who don’t look or sound like us? Being more upset by methods of protest than about the circumstances which make them necessary?

John called his followers to prepare the way of the Lord. He encouraged them to start by being honest with themselves. Let’s stop pinning our lack of mercy on Christ.

Comfort: God is more merciful than we would allow.

Challenge: Ask yourself what people are outside the limits of your mercy.

Prayer: Merciful God, teach me to discern my will from yours. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever knowingly distorted scripture to support your own biases?

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Dream of Service

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Daniel Interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream, Mattia Preti (1613-1699)

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Daniel 2:17-30, 1 John 2:12-17, John 17:20-26


Have you ever heard the advice to be good to people while you’re on your way up the ladder of success, because you’ll be running into them again on the way down? No matter how successful or powerful we are, no one is completely independent. Take King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon: when he was greatly troubled by a dream, he had to depend on others to interpret it. The self-proclaimed wise men of the kingdom were unable to do this for him – though they still pretended they might – and so he ordered the execution of them and others beside. Daniel heard what was about to happen, so he prayed with his friends that God might have mercy on them. When God revealed to Daniel (in another dream) the meaning of the king’s visions, he sought an audience with the king.

Daniel took no credit for knowing the dream or its interpretation. He said no person could do that, but that God could and had. It’s important to remember our gifts are not meant to exploit others for our own benefit (as the wise men would have exploited the king) or to abuse others (as the angry Nebuchadnezzar would have done to innocents). They exist for us to serve God and God’s kingdom. Daniel wisely presented himself as no one special. It was this very humility, the willingness to cast off his ego and get out of his own way to answer the call to service, that made him very special to the king.

We like to feel special. When other people recognize our talents and efforts, it feels good. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging our abilities – false humility doesn’t serve much of a purpose – but we must always remember to give credit to God. Whether we are kings or captives, we are the same to God because all we have came from God. Whether we find that humbling or heartening reveals something to us about our own attitudes.

On our way up, down, or simply holding steady, we should remain focused on God. That’s the best way to keep our balance.

Comfort: You are special to God …

Challenge: … but no more special than anyone else.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for the time and talents you have given me. Teach me to use them well. Amen.

Discussion: What gift do you think you have faithfully put in service to God?

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Vaporware

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 98; 146, Daniel 2:1-16, 1 John 2:1-11, John 17:12-19


When a person or company sells software or another intangible product that isn’t complete (or perhaps doesn’t exist at all yet), that product is called “vaporware.” It’s not always an intentional deception; sales people are often genuinely optimistic the product will be ready by the delivery date. Unfortunately they can also be genuinely wrong.

King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon was too smart to fall for what may have been one of the world’s earliest vaporware scams. He summoned wise men – magicians, sorcerers, and astrologers (stereotyped as Chaldeans) – to interpret his disturbing dream. He wanted them to first tell him what the dream was, as proof of their abilities. The astrologers stepped up and promised to interpret the dream if only the king told them about it first. This angered the king because he knew they were intentionally misleading him and could not interpret. He decreed to reward them if they told the dream and interpreted it, but to execute them and destroy their houses otherwise. The astrologers protested no one could possibly do what the king asked (despite having promised it minutes before) and it made him so furious he ordered the execution of all the “wise men” in the land.

When we promise more than we can deliver, we risk more than our reputation; we gamble with the well-being of others. Businesses, lives, and relationships can be ruined. We may not be getting our peers executed, but claiming overblown profits and capabilities, selling snake oil to the desperately ill, or reneging on personal commitments leaves other to pick up the pieces of inconvenience and even disaster.

Let’s be honest with ourselves and others about the limits of our time and ability. In business and life it’s much better to under-promise and over-deliver than vice versa. The world won’t always cooperate: bosses will want it faster and friends will want more. If saying “yes” now only delays an inevitable disappointment … say “no.” In the long run you’ll both respect you more.

Remember that we represent more than just our own brand, but Christ’s “brand” as well. Walk in your integrity.

Comfort: It’s okay to say no when you need to.

Challenge: Consider your current commitments. Can you keep all of them? If not, responsibly decline the ones you can’t before it’s too late.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for the time and talents you have given me. Teach me to use them well. Amen.

Discussion: How do you feel when you let someone down? When someone lets you down?

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Eat Your Vegetables

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 145, Daniel 1:1-21, 1 John 1:1-10, John 17:1-11


The Babylonians routinely took captives from the lands they conquered and trained them for civil service in the empire. Daniel of Judah and his friends were captives of this sort. While they could serve the king without betraying their faith, they couldn’t eat food from his table because it had been sacrificed to foreign Gods. One of their jailors took pity on them and agreed to bring them nothing but vegetables and water – as long as they did not become obviously thinner and weaker than the other captives. Daniel and his friends flourished and outperformed their fellows.

It’s tempting to sacrifice our principles under duress. Unlike Daniel and friends, when layoffs start happening at work, or we are the victim of a crime, or we feel like the culture around us is pressuring us to change, we may not feel the same assurance that God will help us endure and thrive. Though faith is on our minds and lips, it may falter in our hearts. At those moments, it’s easy to say, “I know this is wrong, but I have to do it to survive.”

The Book of Daniel tells us Judah fell into captivity because it did not faithfully follow God. While God eventually restored Judah, it seems that, to God, surviving may be secondary to thriving. 1 John declares: “If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” Whether we are true to God, ourselves, and each other during hard times is an indicator of whether we will thrive spiritually when those hard times pass, or if they endure.

Accepting Christ is the moment we step into the light. Each step we take is a decision whether to stay in the light or stray from it. God’s love never falters, but whether we  thrive or merely survive is up to us.

Comfort: Staying true to God and yourself gives you inner peace.

Challenge: When times get tough, double down on your commitment to doing the right thing.

Prayer: Heavenly Creator, I will walk in your light and love. Amen.

Discussion: How do you feel when you have not lived up to your own principles?

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Cornerstone

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 93; 150, Isaiah 43:8-13, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-7


The Apostle Peter wrote the letter we call 1 Peter to encourage the church in times of trouble.  In this letter he quotes the prophet Isaiah to describe Christ as “a cornerstone chosen and precious […] The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner.”

A cornerstone is the first stone that builders set in place. Such a stone must be carefully selected and positioned, as it determines how all the others will line up. As the cornerstone of the church, Christ is the stable foundation upon which it all rests and depends.

A cornerstone sounds like a place where walls meet, but it’s actually a point of departure. As the adjoining walls are constructed, they move farther away from each other. While each stone laid is in some way related to the cornerstone, we can’t see all of them at once. If they all had the same position relative to the cornerstone, simply stacked one atop another, they would topple.

Most denominations in the Christian church have formed from conflict. Each believed itself to be a better representation of Christ than the one(s) before it. Some of us are so far apart we can’t believe the other can call itself Christian. In more recent decades though, we have become more ecumenical – more unified. A few holdouts still insist on a solitary brand of Christianity (even though none of us much represents church as Christ would have practiced it in his time) but for the most part we have learned to appreciate each other’s differences without having to agree to hold the same position. As long as we are in line with Christ, we are part of the same structure. We even manage to learn from each other. Ecumenism is like walking around the building to see the whole thing.

As the church faces a troubled world, let us not worry so much that we don’t all hold exactly the same positions. Instead let’s embrace the idea that by finding common support on the once rejected cornerstone, we build outward to where we need to be.

Comfort: When we rely on Christ, we fall into place.

Challenge: When you’re distracted by differences, look for commonalities.

Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for all the ways you are present in the world. Amen.

Discussion: What strategies do you have for handling disagreements?

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A Quiet Kind of Loud

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 92; 149, Isaiah 25:1-9, Acts 4:13-21 (22-31), John 16:16-33


What might Peter and the disciples have meant when they prayed for God to help them ”speak his word with all boldness?” The most obvious meaning of “bold” might be “courageous and daring,” a stance the disciples had struggled with in the past. It also means “impudent.” Following Jesus required the disciples to buck convention, especially when religious authorities tried to maintain the oppressive status quo. No matter how truly a servant speaks, if the master doesn’t like the truth it can sound like insubordination. Another definition is “beyond the limits of convention.” The disciples were asking Israel and eventually the Gentiles to turn their thinking upside down and embrace a paradoxical theology. If the first are last and the last become first… who exactly is on first?

While we are still called to speak God’s word boldly, we must also be humble. For many people, boldness means loudness, intimidation and arrogance. In our current culture many leaders seem to promote this attitude rather than set examples to follow. Sheer volume can become the conversational equivalent of might making right. This is not the way to effectively spread God’s word. When someone yells or is overly forceful, the natural instinct of their target is usually either to retreat or to respond in kind. We can’t alienate someone and hope to communicate with them at the same time.

Companies with good customer service train their representatives to respond to angry customers by listening first, reflecting the customer’s feelings back to them, and then responding positively, firmly and calmly without ever raising their voices. This is bold in the sense that it goes against the natural impulses of the representative and redirects the customer. A good customer service agent defuses a tense situation and leaves the customer feeling satisfied – even when the customer is wrong.

We are not called simply to placate, but if we are to serve to the world, our attitude must be one of service. We do not need anger and hostility to validate a just cause. A quiet truth, spoken boldly and persistently, overcomes the loudest empty noise.

Comfort: Truth speaks louder than anything.

Challenge: The next time you need to make a point, don’t raise your voice; lower it.

Prayer: God of hope, teach me to be bold and humble. Amen.

Discussion: How do you react to boldness?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group , visit comfortandchallenge.tumblr.com, 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!