‘Fess Up

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 19; 150, 1 Samuel 4:12-22, James 1:1-18, Matthew 19:23-30


While nearly all Christian denominations now consider the Book of James an official part of the New Testament canon, it can still be controversial. It mentions Christ only twice, and never in the context of his resurrection, but does refer to many of his sayings. Scholars don’t agree on its author, timing, or structure. Still it contains great wisdom which doesn’t rely on complex theological understandings (though it is not without its own theological stance). Simply put, James wants us to live with the integrity of a disciple of Christ.

Not everyone embraces this common-sense approach. Here’s some of what James has to say about temptation:

No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.

We like to push the blame for our temptations onto external sources. It’s part of the earliest stories of our faith, when Eve blamed the serpent and Adam blamed Eve. We blame the devil. We blame God. Yet James tell us we can’t be tempted by something we didn’t want to begin with.

If we dodge responsibility for our own temptations, we never overcome them. It’s like denying a need for bifocals by saying the television won’t focus any more.

When we say confession is good for the soul, we’re usually talking about sins already committed. What if we practiced confessing our temptations before they matured into sins? Shame tells us to shove them in the closet, but then we end up struggling so hard to keep them behind the door that they consume all our energy and eventually wear us down, escape, and trample our lives.

Confessing a temptation to a trusted friend or counselor helps us put it into perspective and manage it. If, as Justice Brandeis said, sunlight is the best disinfectant, let’s not suffer alone in the darkness.

Read more on today’s passage from Acts in Camels and Needles.

Comfort: Temptation is a part of life. It doesn’t make you a bad person.

Challenge: Be brave enough to deal with your temptations before they become reality.

Prayer: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer (Psalm 19).

Discussion: How do you fight temptation?

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Where there’s a will, there’s a weighing.

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 149, 1 Samuel 4:1b-11, Acts 4:32-5:11, Luke 21:20-28


According to one anecdote about Abraham Lincoln, someone once said to the President he hoped that regarding the Civil War, God was on their side. Lincoln allegedly replied:

Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.

This quote, which can’t actually be sourced directly to Lincoln, distills many of his ideas about the role God did or did not play on the larger stage of human affairs. Lincoln was not convinced that because he sought the will of God that he knew or performed the will of God. Most of us will never carry the fate of a nation on our shoulders, but may we maintain the same humility in our conscience. There’s a difference between praying to do the right thing, and praying that the thing you do is right.

When the soldiers of Israel faced down the army of the Philistines, they couldn’t understand why they were losing since surely the God of Israel favored them. They sent for the Ark of the Covenant to be brought from the temple to their camp – literally placing God on their side of the battlefield. Not only did they lose, the corrupt sons of their high priest were killed, and the Ark was captured by the enemy.

We might easily assume that calling ourselves God’s people means what we do in good faith is God’s will. Yet time and again, God used foreign nations to further the plan when Israel failed to do so. Let’s always remain humble enough to consider that even people who seem bent on destroying us are not outside God’s providence.

But we need not despair from uncertainty. Thomas Merton famously prayed:

[T]he fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.

Whatever we do, let us humbly fear and trust the Lord.

Read more on today’s passage from Acts in Mellow Harshed.

Comfort: God understands your intentions and inner conflicts.

Challenge: Read or listen to the whole version of Thomas Merton’s prayer.

Prayer: See the challenge.

Discussion: When have you realized you might have made some bad assumptions?

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Collecting Calls

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 51; 148, 1 Samuel 3:1-21, Acts 2:37-47, Luke 21:5-19


What do you feel called to do?

To leave behind a legacy – a lasting work that will be remembered long after you’re gone? To make the most of this life through travel, friendship, love, art, or memories forged?  To stillness and simplicity, an empyting of the self that allows you to simply be? So many possibilities. Could it be that ultimately all these callings are in pursuit of the same thing?

Young Samuel, who had served under Eli at the temple in Shiloh, had a literal calling from the Lord. Twice one night the Lord called to him, but both times Samuel mistook the voice for Eli, and twice Eli sent him back to his room. The third time the Lord called, Eli realized what was going on and told Samuel to say, “Speak, for your servant is listening.“

The message the Lord had for Samuel was one of destruction for Eli and his corrupt sons, who abused the priesthood and their nation. Eli seemed resigned to his fate, saying only, “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.”

Aren’t we all called to contentment and a feeling of completeness? We can head down a lot of wrong roads trying to figure out where that call is leading us. Accomplishments – of wealth, fame, creativity, etc. – for their own sake never quite get us there; it seems there’s always one more hurdle to leap before the finish line. Even when we are doing our best to serve the Lord it can seem like we’re knocking on all the wrong doors. If someone doesn’t prompt us to pause and take stock, we may never ask whether we’re answering the right call.

Eli, for all his failings, finally understood the most peaceful thing we can do is trust and obey God. Does that mean not having to make any effort? To the contrary, it make take a whole lot of effort, but as Christ assures us his burden is light.

That hole in your heart isn’t waiting to be filled by God. It’s where God waits to be found.

Read more on today’s passage from Luke in The Best Defense or more about our Acts passage in Christian Community.

Comfort: Sometimes you can find out where you need to go when you stop moving for a little while.

Challenge: Keep a diary of how you spend your time. What does it tell you about your priorities?

Prayer: Speak, for your servant is listening.

Discussion: What kind of activity do you find the most fulfilling?

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!

TV or not TV?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, 1 Samuel 2:27-36, Acts 2:22-36, Luke 20:41-21:4


There are two kinds of people who tell you they don’t own a television. (OK, there are probably more but they don’t help further this illustration). The first mention it matter-of-factly because it is pertinent to the conversation. The second deliver the information kind of smugly, often unnecessarily, and their tone lets us know they feel a bit superior about it.

The scribes Jesus criticized fell into that second camp. Televisions weren’t an option, but their public prayers were overloud and overlong, their tasseled robes (a symbol of piety) hung longer than necessary, and they generally made sure the world knew they were that little bit extra. Jesus told them the recognition they sought in this life would be the only reward they received.

Our expression of faith should not be a performance. There’s no medal to be won in the piety olympics, and we don’t get a better table in heaven because we looked down our noses at non-believers. On the other hand, we shouldn’t make an idol of humility either. Everyone knows the martyr who just won’t die – the person who constantly abases him or herself unnecessarily and obviously. The one who misses dessert at every church social to personally wash the two hundred dirty dishes – even if they have to block the kitchen door to do it.

So if we are to live lives holy and apart, yet not be showy, what’s the balance?

Maybe it’s not spending any time at all worrying about whether or not people see what you do. Say grace in a restaurant, but keep it to the table. List volunteering at the homeless center on your resume,  but don’t humblebrag it. Share stories about your church group’s mission trip, but tell them in a way that glorifies God, not your self-actualization. Work with disadvantaged youth, but don’t use them as props in selfies. Wash the dishes, but welcome the help.

Jesus praised the widow who quietly gave her last cent. When we serve as faithfully as she did, we stop focusing on our own pride or humility and start focusing on Christ.

Read more on today’s passage from Luke in Puzzling It Out.

Comfort: God knows your heart. That is enough.

Challenge: Think less about yourself.

Prayer: God, I humbly offer my hands and heart for the work you would have me do. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever done something for the wrong reasons?

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Why did the Christian cross the road?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, 1 Samuel 2:12-26, Acts 2:1-21, Luke 20:27-40


Most comedians try to follow the rule “don’t punch down.” In other words, no cheap shots at the expense of people whose circumstances put them at a disadvantage relative to yourself. For instance, able-bodied people making jokes about people with disabilities (which differs from crafting humor in solidarity) is not appropriate. “Don’t punch down” is a good rule to follow for everyone. Generally speaking, our gains should not place unwelcome financial, physical, or emotional burdens on those who are less fortunate.

The sons of Eli, the head priest at the temple of Shiloh, didn’t seem to get that memo. They also served as priests, but abused their authority terribly. They stole for their own tables the best portions of the meat their fellow Israelites brought for sacrifice. They forced themselves on women who served the temple. Sadly they got away with these things because their supposed moral authority intimidated those they were meant to serve.

When we find ourselves at the wrong end of a punchline, we may be tempted to play the victim. At those times it’s important to learn to take a joke, unpack it, and accept the sting of any truth it contains. We don’t always realize who or how we exploit until someone points it out to us.

Like good comedy, good religion doesn’t punch down. It doesn’t increase the bounty of the already well-to-do – particularly clergy – at the financial expense of the poor or the social expense of the marginalized. This might seem like common sense, but too many religious leaders have grown rich and pews full by exploiting the vulnerable. A popular (but debatable) notion says that in ages past the court jester could use humor to speak truth to power without suffering the same consequences as would more political members of the court. Shaming common sinners takes neither courage nor conviction; confronting a hypocritical and corrupt establishment requires both and more. If, as Paul says, we are to be fools for Christ, let us be the type of fool who shines a light on abuses of power and gives voice to the voiceless.

Read more on today’s passage from Luke in Puzzling It Out.

Comfort: Christ opens his arms wide to those who are foolish for him.

Challenge: Learn to laugh at yourself.

Prayer: God, give me the courage to seek justice, and the humor to survive it. Amen.

Discussion: What’s your favorite joke?

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No apologies. Sort of.

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, 1 Samuel 1:21-2:11, Acts 1:15-26, Luke 20:19-26


When someone criticizes your faith or religious beliefs, what is your first reaction? What about challenges to other beliefs, like politics, music, or sports? Most of us instinctively want to defend our position. This isn’t by default a bad response, but it probably shouldn’t be our only response. Eager as we might be to “enlighten” the person who disagrees with us by exposing them to a torrent of fact, idea, and opinion, such a defensive reaction does not send a message of confidence. To the contrary, it often comes across as desperate, or even self-delusional.

This need to convince others – or maybe ourselves? – that we are right keeps Christian bookstores in business. Their shelves are stocked with volume after volume of apologetics ( defenses of and arguments for the Christian faith) supposedly meant to arm the well-meaning Christian against non-believers, especially smart ones who push (shudder) science. Careful study of these books on creationism, biblical inerrancy and gospel reliability reveals they are mostly meant to help Christians convince ourselves we haven’t backed the wrong high horse. Being knowledgeable about our faith, its tenets, and its history is a good thing – a scripturally sound one actually – but there’s a fine line between defending the faith and becoming defensive about it. If our faith balances on an intricate and delicate house of Bible flash cards atop brittle doctrine, its eventual fall is only ever one firmly slammed door away.

Listening to challenges and evidence with an open mind isn’t equal to admitting we are wrong; a firmly founded faith will withstand a little rough weather. If the scribes and priests in today’s passage from Luke had been willing to hear the criticisms Jesus gave in his parables, they might have appeared less foolish and actually learned something. When God speaks to us through others, it’s rarely to say “Keep on doing what you’re doing.”

Testimony is more effective as an invitation than a lecture or subpoena.  Should we develop a coherent understanding of our beliefs? Certainly. Yet the foundation of faith and faith shared rests not on our own understanding, but God’s.

Comfort: Our love of God speaks volumes more than our explanations of God.

Challenge: When someone disagrees with you, listen first to understand, and respond only when the situation requires it.

Prayer: God, I love you with all my heart and all my mind. Amen.

Discussion: What’s something you believe that you can’t prove? Why do you believe it?

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Hannah and Her Sisters

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, 1 Samuel 1:1-20, Acts 1:1-14, Luke 20:9-19


The Book of Samuel begins with the story of his mother, Hannah. One of Elkanah’s two wives, she was distraught because she had not borne any children while his other wife had. Elkanah loved Hannah dearly. When she wept and would not eat, he asked, “Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

Reading this passage, I could not help but think of several women friends who have no children, some by choice, some by circumstance, and some by disappointment. As a man, this is not my territory to map. As a friend, I hope to pass on some of what they’ve trusted me enough to share.

“How many children do you have?” seems to be a go-to question between women getting acquainted at work or in social settings in the way sports establishes common ground between many men. Usually it starts a conversation about something people love and have in common, but for some it is a complex, even painful, question. If you’ve lost a child, you may struggle for an appropriate answer. If you answer you have no children, especially if it’s not by choice, you need to brace yourself for the inevitable “I bet you’d make a great mother” or other well-meaning phrase which implies your hope for a fulfilling life ultimately relies on motherhood. Confidently stating motherhood isn’t part of your plan can unnerve people who consider it a sacred duty.

Hannah, through prayer and supplication, eventually has a child she dedicates to the service of the Lord. Many women won’t have, or want to have, the same outcome. While motherhood is a beautiful vocation, women are more than extensions of their children (or their husbands … even if he seems worth ten or more sons). A life without children, while it may contain a specific kind of grief, is not a consolation prize.

Children are a source of joy, but they are not the only source. Let us learn to see God fully at work in all lives and to value people for who they are, not who we think they need to be.

Comfort: Failing to meet people’s expectations is not failing to meet God.

Challenge: Remember that your dream is not everyone’s dream.

Prayer: Gracious and loving God, teach me compassion and empathy. Amen.

Discussion: How can we be more sensitive and inclusive about the topic of children?

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Breaking The Cycle

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Exodus 6:2-13; 7:1-6, Revelation 15:1-8, Matthew 18:1-14


The “cycle of poverty” describes how the experience of poverty, usually over several generations, alters people’s perceptions and behaviors such that they can not find a way to escape it. Culture, education, and economics can also work against people caught in the cycle. Some exceptional people manage to break out, but more often people need the grace of intervention. Intervention vs. charity is sometimes described as “a hand up instead of a handout.” It’s a catchy saying, but implies people are more in control of their circumstances than they actually are.

Not everyone agrees with this viewpoint. Some insist we can all pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and failing to do so illustrates a lack of will and/or character. However, the Book of Exodus seems to sympathize with the damage inflicted by such a cycle.

When God sent Moses to tell the captive people of Israel they would soon be set free, “they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.” Was God’s next step to lecture the Israelites on their character and willpower? No. It was to send Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh, where they could makes foundational changes on a systemic level.

“But those were slaves, not the poor,” we might argue.

The distinction between slavery and poverty is not as sharp as we might like it to be. The hard truth is, the wealthy have greater freedoms – including the freedom to make good economic decisions, hire good legal representation, etc. – than the poor have. We can stereotype welfare queens and panhandlers, but does anyone believe they weren’t also once children with dreams to be doctors or artists or astronauts? Dreams don’t die, they are suffocated by injustice.

Jesus declared “Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks” placed before children. He was speaking of spiritual stumbling blocks, but poverty and its associated injustices affect both the physical and spiritual well-being of children. He told the story of a shepherd seeking one lost sheep out of a hundred; how would he feel about the one billion left behind to poverty (fifteen million of them in the United States)?  What we do about poverty and how we think about the poor matters to God.

None of us can solve poverty, but we can change how we understand it and how we approach it. We are all accountable for our choices, but we are all also accountable for helping make sure those choices are available to everyone.

Comfort: Needing help does not make you weak or sinful.

Challenge: When you are tempted to blame people for their circumstances, remember some of the bad decisions you’ve struggled to overcome.

Prayer: Loving God, help me to be generous and wise, to meet needs that will change people’s lives. Amen.

Discussion: When have you asked for help? If you’ve needed help but not asked for it, how did you feel about getting it – or not getting it?

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Invitation: Daylily

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In the late spring of every year, the daylilies start to appear in the back yard. I’m no gardener, but I do enjoy the beauty of flowers and these ones, with their brilliant orange glow, pop like slow-burning fireworks of joy.

Aside from an occasional watering when the weather grows unseasonably hot or dry – which I’m not sure they even need – they require no effort to maintain. These beauties were here when we got here, and unless someone purposely tears them out, they will long outlast us. Given the short lifespan of any individual flower, that seems a little mystical.

Of course the desirability of any plant is subjective to the grower. I’ve heard people say daylilies are “just this side of weeds” and “invasive nuisances.” Still, I get excited when I see them appear in a corner of the yard where they hadn’t been before. They may be my favorite kind of drop-in guests.

The more there are, the brighter the glow. When the sun hits the yard at just the right angle, it puts me in mind of the holy fire of Pentecost, a season we are in the midst of at this moment.

Maybe we can take some invitational inspiration from the daylily.

It doesn’t appear because of anything elaborate we’ve done – no special programming, no fancy greenhouse. It appears because its nature is to bask in the sun for the short time it has on earth, and it thrives when we accept it for who it is and offer assistance during tough times.

Daylilies are as common as the dirt they grow in, but God has seen fit to imbue them with striking beauty. There may be fancier plants in the garden, more serious subjects which require elaborate knowledge and constant care to grow, but we miss a lot of grace if we choose to equate common with nuisance, or if we devote all our attention to the “important” blooms and never look around at what we’ve been given freely. When they show up uninvited in the odd corner where they aren’t “supposed” to be, could it be a misplaced sense of control that compels us to reign them in rather than marvel at their resilience?

People are going to show up at Christ’s table uninvited. We might prefer them to have been better tended, more holy and less common in appearance or demeanor, closer to some design we had in mind, but God puts them where God will. Our job isn’t to weed them out, but to find the Christ in them and offer spiritual and physical nourishment as needed. Viewed from just the right angle, even the most common flower glows, and the more who gather around Christ’s table, the brighter the glow.

Who are we to determine who deserves to bask in the Son? Let us be gardens of welcome.

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

Getting Engaged

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, Song of Solomon 5:10-16; 7:1-2 (3-5) 6-7a (9); 8:6-7, 2 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 20:1-8


Paul’s relationship with the church in Corinth was a rocky one. In his letter known as 2 Corinthians, Paul encourages and scolds, loves and mocks, thanks and threatens, delights and defends. Naturally written from his perspective, this epistle still includes clues about his contributions to the friction. Yet in conclusion, Paul writes with all sincerity: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”

How often do we hear such words spoken today between opposing interests? To the contrary, traditional and social media by design encourage not reconcilation across disagreements but confirmation of our existing beliefs and biases. We can find television networks that tell us what we want to hear and marginalize those who disagree. The feeds of most popular social media sites follow algorithms engineered to categorize us into ever narrower groups for marketing; the intention may not be to divide us, but division is at the least a problematic side effect.

Paul had many disagreements with members of the Corinthian church, including their lack of basic respect for him. Yet he remained committed to them as fellow Christians bound in common faith and community. He understood that neither the things that deserved his praise nor those that needed correction completely defined them. Paul remained engaged with them in an honest and loving way, though he knew not all of them were presently willing to return the favor. He had enough faith to believe his persistent love would lead to reconciliation, and enough wisdom to know that wouldn’t necessarily mean complete agreement.

How willing are we to engage with people who disagree with us – religiously, politically, culturally, etc – not to argue or defeat, but to actually interact with them as human beings instead of representations of a particular category? Paul could easily have left the Corinthians to the care of those he called “Super Apostles” (akin to today’s televangelists), but then everyone except those willing to exploit division would have lost. People can’t see us for who we truly are until we show up.

Comfort: God does not see us as labels.

Challenge: We should not see each other that way either.

Prayer: Gracious God, source of all love, teach me to love all your children, as they are my brothers and sisters. Amen.

Discussion: Is there any category of people you dismiss out of hand?

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!