Undone

1495555242183

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 98; 146, Deuteronomy 8:11-20 (or Deuteronomy 18:15-22), James 1:16-27, Luke 11:1-13


“Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”

What sobering words from James. Don’t we all have the capacity to work up a righteous (or self-righteous) anger? Shouldn’t evil and injustice make us angry?

Though wrath is reserved for the Lord, anger is an inescapable part of the human condition. We may spend a lifetime trying to master it – or trying to make sure it doesn’t master us – but on some level we cling to the belief that anger gets things done. Maybe we need to ask if they are the right things.

Anger is the beast that rips the wings off the better angels of our natures; the saboteur that dismantles our mechanisms of compassion and reason just when we need them most. Anger is the self-devouring fear we experience when forced to face the truth of one power we all lack: the power to undo. We get angry because something has happened, something we would have prevented if we could go back. When we are angry about what may happen in the future, it’s because we can’t change an event in the past. If that event is of our own making and anger turns inward, we find ourselves caught in a barbed net that draws tighter the more we struggle.

But Christ … Christ redefines the past. Christ transforms the cross – the murderous embodiment of the anger of an entire corrupt empire – into a sign of new life. Christ tames the beast, foils the saboteur. Submitted to Christ, anger is resurrected and refocused as a drive for justice, an energy for radical love, a passion for mercy, a courage for truth. Our anger does not produce God’s righteousness, but God’s righteousness can produce amazing things from an anger we are willing to turn over.

In the heat of the moment, anger may be unavoidable, even necessary for survival, but the most necessary armor will eventually suffocate us. Know when to peel it off, when to seek the breath of life, when to beat the sword into a plowshare. What we cannot undo, Christ will not leave undone.

Comfort: Your anger does not have to define you.

Challenge: Read some articles or books on managing anger.

Prayer: God of peace, take my anger and resurrect it as love. Amen.

Discussion: How do you usually deal with being angry? Shouting? Silence? Violence? How do you feel about 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. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

The Long Game

instructions-from-the-coach-1496200

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 145, Deuteronomy 8:1-10 (or Deuteronomy 18:9-14),  James 1:1-15, Luke 9:18-27


Great coaches do not hang their hopes or reputation on any single game, tournament, or season. They focus on long-term goals for the team and the program. Fans and players who demand short-term results can quickly become disgruntled. No one likes to see their team lose. No player likes to sit the bench, especially a former star in high school, college, or the minors. Despite complaints, good coaches stick to the strategy, put in players who prioritize the needs of the team, and patiently mold a team into its optimal form.

God also plays a long game – the longest. As the Israelites entered the Promised Land after forty years of wandering the wilderness, Moses explained how their trials had prepared them. Their faith was tested, and refined when found lacking. As their endurance was pushed to its limits, they became a people who could face adversity and come out the other side. No matter how much they complained, God forcefully but lovingly stuck to the program for benefits they couldn’t foresee. In the end they learned the problem was not the program, but their ability to accept and live it.

Under the best circumstances, people appreciate great coaches. Under the worst, they replace them with someone who promises more immediate results. Like the golden calf worshipped by the Israelites while Moses was on the mountain, cheap substitutes satisfy the present urge, but fail to build character that sustains the team for the long haul.

Jesus understood the importance of long range planning. When Peter admitted he thought Jesus was the Christ, Jesus told him to keep that information under wraps until all that needed to happen had happened. Events might have unfolded differently if the Jewish authorities had believed Jesus was the messiah – different in ways that could have been easier on him – but he chose to stick with the program.

A good program adapts to the needs of the team, while simultaneously moving each team member closer to the goal. God can work similarly in our lives – if we are open to the program. Let’s come ready to play.

Comfort: Patience is not the same as doing nothing.

Challenge: Write down some long range goals. Pray about and revisit them regularly.

Prayer: God, thank you for your patience and guidance when I wander. Amen.

Discussion: When are you tempted to take shortcuts in life?

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. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Year Six

hunger-and-gratitude-1539608

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 93; 150, Deuteronomy 15:1-11, 1 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Matthew 13:24-34a


Deuteronomy is one of those Old Testament books some Christians like to pick and choose from when it comes to identifying sins. We come up with complex academic, theological, and just plain arbitrary reasons to separate the rules we want enforced from the ones we don’t. We cling tightly to sexual sins, but don’t seem to have much problem anymore with usury (charging interest on loans), divorce, or mixed fabrics. Many times the distinction seems to boil down to whether the people committing the sin in question can be identified as “them” rather than “us.”

When’s the last time you heard Christians debating whether we should still observe remission? Since it would cost us money, probably not ever. Remission was the practice of forgiving loans every seven years. And it wasn’t just the act, but the spirit that was important: Deuteronomy warns against denying a loan in year six just because year seven is around the corner. Imagine what incredible relief that sort of financial amnesty meant for the poor. How does it compare to our current attitudes about debt, the poor, and generosity?

Since we follow a Christ who said “give to all who ask of you” (Luke 6:30 and Matt 5:42), why are we more likely to trot out passages about sexual transgressions than Deut 15:7-8 (“Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be’”) or 15:11 (“Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”)? Why do we demand religious-based legislation about what people can do with their bodies, but chafe under legislation that touches our wallets to aid the poor?

That sixth year admonition emphasizes how much God desires us to examine and correct our own hearts, even when it doesn’t make financial sense, and to cultivate an attitude of Christ-like generosity. Grace is not an equation like compound interest; the more you give, the more you get.

Comfort: The more generous you are, the more generous you will want to be.

Challenge: Try to think of generosity as something that benefits the giver spiritually as much as it benefits the recipient materially.

Prayer: God of grace and abundance, create in me a clean and generous heart. Amen.

Discussion: What’s the most generous gift someone has given you?

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. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Building The Neighborhood

sunrise-in-my-neighborhood-1203517-1599x1066

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 92; 149, Deuteronomy 32:34-41 (42) 43, Romans 15:1-13, Luke 9:1-17


Elementary and middle schools typically provide remedial math and English classes for students who struggle in a traditional classroom. High schools and colleges provide tutoring programs for student-athletes who face academic challenges. The tutors are often fellow students. Has anyone heard of a reciprocal program? Not to artificially divide students into athletic or academic talents, but there is surely at least a subset of the academically gifted who are athletically challenged. Where are the sports and strength tutors returning the favor? There are coaches and trainers, of course, but outside of gym class they spend their time with students already comfortable with athletics.

Paul wrote, “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.” He was speaking of the spiritually strong and weak, but deciding to see the “weak” of any kind as people we have an opportunity to serve, rather than to mock, discipline, or leave behind, applies in many ways. Do we make an effort to help build up our neighbor, or do we find reasons to blame them for their weakness?

The division between the strong and the weak permeates our culture. It’s practically inescapable – even  our romantic vocabulary includes “conquests.” It affects how we view and treat each other, and not for the better.

Part of the Good News is that Christ frees us from the burden of determining who is strong and who is weak. Instead he teaches us to serve each other no matter what. When he sent the twelve apostles to spread the Gospel, he instructed them to take nothing. This vulnerability put them at the mercy of the towns they visited. Why would he have done this, if not to show the strength that is present in willing vulnerability?

Let us put our strengths to service. Let us see weakness as an opportunity to serve. Let us remember that we are all as God has created us, which is reason enough to build up one another.

Comfort: Your weaknesses are opportunities for God to build you up.

Challenge: Pay attention to instances where movies, television, magazines, etc. artificially or unnecessarily divide between the weak and the strong.

Prayer: Loving God, show me where I may serve. Amen.

Discussion: What “weaknesses” particularly bother you?

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. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Speaking of Faith

sentencediagram

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 148, Deuteronomy 31:30-32:14, Romans 14:13-23, Luke 8:40-56


In linguistics “code switching” refers to the practice of moving among different languages in the same conversation. In a sociological sense, it is also a popular term – particularly among African Americans – for trading one’s comfortable, informal manner of speech for a more formal, homogenized one to facilitate communication and acceptance within the dominant group. Some people view code switching as hypocritical, but most of us unconsciously engage in some form of it. For example, children speak differently to their parents than their peers, employers speak differently to their bosses than their co-workers, and those of us who curse like sailors probably curb that @#$% when addressing our pastors.

According to Paul, code switching (while not his term) could even be a sign of respect. He advised Christians who had no issues with eating meat or drinking wine not to become a stumbling block to their brothers and sisters who considered such things sinful. It wasn’t that Paul found these things sinful, rather that he believed “those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” He asked people to adjust their faith language accordingly.

A person’s vernacular does not define their native intelligence or ability any more than our perception of their piety defines their faith. But here’s the big difference: in the case of code switching for corporate America, the less privileged person is expected to change; Paul was asking the group with more freedom to accommodate the less free. In the world, the first impose on the last. In the Kingdom, the first serve the last.

A faith language has its own grammar. As with any grammar, it is a tool to be used, not a weapon to be wielded. We want to be fluent in it for our own benefit, but we should refrain from correcting (or worse demeaning) other people for failing to meet its exact standards. Let us listen to understand more than to correct, to invite more than to demand. Our God is not about technicalities, but about grace.

Comfort: Even when your “faith grammar” isn’t perfect, God understands.

Challenge: Listen to familiar hymns sung in a language you do not now. Do they say anything new to you?

Prayer: Loving God, may I seek more to understand than to be understood. Amen.

Discussion: People can have complicated relationships with grammar, anything from self-declared grammar police to being intimidated by it entirely. What’s yours?

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. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Unlimited

space-halo-1-1626963-1918x1149text

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 47; 147:12-20, Jeremiah 33:1-13, Romans 14:1-12, Luke 8:26-39


Today in Luke we read about Jesus healing a man long possessed by demons. A few verses earlier, he had calmed a raging storm. One element these stories have in common is how some people reacted to the events: fearfully. Even though Jesus saves them from physical and spiritual danger, their fear eclipses their gratitude.

What exactly did the people fear? They feared an unpredictable God, or more specifically a Jesus who served an unpredictable God. We might consider them in a patronizing fashion, but we shouldn’t be too hasty to decide we are somehow wiser. What kind of messiah—what kind of God—do we think we serve? We like the Jesus who eats with sinners and raises the dead, but what do we think of the Jesus who drives evil spirits out of a person and into a herd of swine who respond by killing themselves? However we interpret this story, we must grapple with a Jesus—with a God—who operates beyond our understanding. Even when we accept that discipleship has its demands, we like to think we know what those demands will be. We are more comfortable with a God we can define, even subconsciously, than a God we can’t tame to stay within the bounds of human expectations. For if we can’t set expectations on God, we can’t anticipate what expectations God might have of us!

Like the Gerasenes, we may retreat when we realize the “easy” parts of relationship with Christ belong within a larger package, a package we can’t wrap our arms or brains around. When we think of holy or righteous lives, we tend to think of them as peaceful and orderly. An exception may be the missionary who finds herself in dangerous and unknown territory, but we think of her as just that—an exception. The truth is, when we enter fully into relationship with Christ and God, our experience of God is mysterious and wild. Our hearts are at peace, but our lives are one surprise and risk after another. This may seem contradictory, but that’s part of the mystery.

Comfort: Releasing ourselves from the need to limit God frees God to remove the limits from our lives.

Challenge: Each day for a week, write down one thing (news item, scripture passage, etc.) that confuses you about the nature of God. Afterward, thank God for being present and loving even when you don’t understand how.

Prayer: God of Mystery, thank you for not meeting my expectations. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever felt like God was inviting you to do something unexpected?

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. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Authority? Figures.

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Jeremiah 32:36-44, Romans 13:1-14, Luke 8:16-25


[Note: This post originally appeared on July 16, 2016. I’ve never re-posted an item on this blog, but given the current political climate, this reflection on Romans 13 seems to bear a repeat appearance. Peace. – JJS]

In Romans 13 Paul writes that earthly authorities are appointed by God, therefore we should submit to them. He asserts that anyone who has good conduct has no reason to fear the authorities. He claims “the authority does not bear the sword in vain” – that it does not punish people without good cause. Paul goes so far as to say resisting authority is equivalent to resisting God, a behavior worthy of wrath.

Does this accurately reflect our experience of authority?

Paul wrote this letter during a time when political and civil unrest threatened the status of the Jewish People in the Roman Empire. He wanted to prevent them from committing acts that would invite retaliation. This attitude must have been a divisive one, since so many of Jesus’ teachings and actions were aimed directly against the abuses of the Roman government. How could Paul bring himself to defend the empire that crucified his Savior?

Paul offered no qualifiers, but Biblical commentaries usually advise us his words apply only to just authorities. The problem is this leads to circular logic: the ones we like are just, the ones we don’t are not. After the last several presidential elections, whether the winner was a conservative or liberal, many people who supported the opposition claimed the winner was illegitimate. We take a similar view of federal judges: when we agree with their rulings, they are upholding the constitution; when we disagree, they are judicial activists. And in non-democratic countries it’s even more complicated.

What to do? One option might be to withdraw from the political process altogether, as some denominations do. Yet this option doesn’t seem to reflect the actions of Jesus, the many martyrs, and other advocates of justice who died standing up to authority. We might be better off to remember the only authority to whom we owe any allegiance is God. We’re going to disagree about what that means, but each of us is obligated to act as we believe God calls us to. If we have ears to listen, Christ and the Spirit will point us toward true authority.

Comfort: You don’t answer to anyone but God.

Challenge: You still have to live with authority.

Prayer: Creator God, Lord of Heaven and Earth, I am your creature, and will follow you before all others. Amen.

Discussion: When does authority rub you the wrong way?

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. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Humble Beginnings

1494984412446

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 98; 146, Jeremiah 32:16-25, Romans 12:1-21, Luke 8:1-15


Have you ever tried negotiating with God? Something like: “Dear God, if you will [fill in the blank]… I promise to never/always [fill in another blank].” Are we able to keep such promises? In retrospect, we may realize we were foolish to make them in the first place. God knows just how weak we can be when it comes to holding up our end of a deal.

Jeremiah tells the story of how the Israelites lost the land God gave them, because they forgot God and lived sinfully . In their pride and selfishness, they forgot everything they had was a gift. How often do we hear about “self-made” athletes, entertainers, or politicians who achieve success, only to forget their humble beginnings? And how often do these stories end with a fall from grace when the successful lose perspective? How frequently have we pleaded with God to deliver us – only to insist on our own way once things improve? When times are good do we, like the Israelites, forget the God who provided for us and return to the old ways that caused us trouble in the first place? When our responsibilities are no longer convenient, do we neglect them to follow our desires?

In Romans, Paul warns us not to overestimate our own wisdom. Our successes come when we remember to be faithful stewards of our gifts, not when we take too much credit for them. When times are good, let’s give thanks for what we’ve been entrusted, and when times are bad let’s not rely solely on our own resources to get out of trouble. We learn from the Israelites that such attitudes can turn good situations to bad, and bad to worse. Our efforts count, but not for everything.

Promises do not convince God to act one way or another, and failing to meet promises – even with the best intentions – damages our character. Negotiating is a way of using our “wisdom” to manipulate God. Instead let’s seek God’s will in all circumstances, and live as if we’ve promised to make of ourselves a holy and living sacrifice.

Comfort: We have greater resources than our own thoughts.

Challenge: Meditate on promises you have kept… and broken.

Prayer:  Loving God, thank you for being constant when I am not. 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 visit comfortandchallenge.tumblr.com. 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!

Forgive and Don’t Forget

conduct_wisely

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 145, Jeremiah 32:1-15, Colossians 3:18-4:18, Luke 7:36-50


Paul was convinced that Christ’s return was a short-term proposition. As far as he was concerned, that was all the social upheaval that would be needed. In his letters to the Colossians and the Galatians, he declared that in Christ there was no distinction made between Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. Long-term political and social reform simply wasn’t part of the equation. So when he advises wives to be subject to their husbands and slaves to obey their masters, he isn’t so much advocating for the social ills of sexism and human trafficking (though there’s no plausible argument he was against them either) as he is commenting on the world as it is but won’t be much longer.

Importantly, he also counsels masters to be just and fair, husbands not to be harsh, and fathers not to provoke their children. No matter what circumstances we find ourselves in – fair or unfair, powerful or powerless – we should conduct ourselves in a manner that shows our trust and dignity lie in Christ. The work we do; the words we choose; the attitudes we display; no matter our station in life all of these can be conformed to the image of Christ. We won’t do it perfectly, but perfection is not the expectation.

Ironically, one of the best ways to do better is to remember when we have done worse. We don’t do this to feel guilty, but to feel gratitude. Luke tells the tale of a sinful woman who came to Jesus while he visited and dined with a Pharisee. She washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. When the Pharisee tried to warn Jesus what kind of woman she was, Jesus pointed out she had shown him many more kindnesses than the Pharisee had: “Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

Let’s remember what we have been forgiven. Every little detail. Then let’s return that gratitude and love by sharing it with all we meet.

Comfort: You are forgiven much.

Challenge: You are called to forgive.

Prayer:  Forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Amen.

Discussion: How do you typically show gratitude?

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

Do Unto Others

holding-hands-across-the-world-1312801-1599x1062

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 93; 150, Isaiah 32:1-8, 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17, Matthew 7:7-14


In everything do to others as you would have them do to you;
for this is the law and the prophets.
– Matthew 7:12

These words from Jesus are often called “The Golden Rule.” The concept transcends the Judeo-Christian tradition; many (most?) cultures have some variation. One might think such a universal idea must be common sense, but it really isn’t. Have you ever heard of “NIMBY?” It stands for “Not In My Back Yard.” For example, we want the convenience of cheap petroleum products like plastic and gasoline, but nobody wants the toxic waste dumped in their neighborhood. People of means can take legal action to prevent that, but aren’t generally bothered about where it does end up.

It takes moral and spiritual maturity to value the needs of others as importantly as our own needs – and it’s a lifelong process. In his book The Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey writes: “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behaviour.” At least until we exercise our ability to empathize. When we realize our intentions are invisible to people who suffer from our actions, and our suffering at the hands of others may not be their intent, we achieve a more balanced perspective. If, for example, we are made aware a remark is racist or sexist, we can defend it by explaining our intentions were not so – which tells the other person our intention matters more than their reality – or we can be accountable and do better in the future. If the situation was reversed, which would you prefer? Do that one.

Perhaps the trickiest part of observing the Golden Rule is admitting we don’t always know how we want to be treated. It’s possible your response to the racist/sexist remark question was something like, “I’d brush it off; no big deal.” If so (assuming you are white and/or male), ask yourself if you’d accept being treated as women and people of color have historically been treated.

Self-awareness and empathy are inseparable. Take time to learn what other people need, and you’ll learn more about what you do.

Comfort: Being considerate of others makes you stronger.

Challenge: It’s easy to empathize with people who are similar to us. Ask friends who differ from you in gender, race, religion, age, sexual orientation, ability, or other ways what they wished you knew.

Prayer:  Forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Amen.

Discussion: When do you have trouble empathizing?

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