Decrease to Increase


Today’s readings (click below to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 15; 147:1-11, Genesis 9:18-29, Hebrews 6:1-12, John 3:22-36

The ministry of John the Baptist was a big success. Business was so good he had customers lined up from Bethany to Aenon, where he moved because it had more water to let him do his job. He had his own disciples and irritated all the right authorities. Yet when Jesus arrived on the scene, John willingly gave it all up. John knew something we often forget: successful ministry is not determined by numbers or longevity, but by how well it advances the message and mission of Christ. When John’s followers began flocking to Jesus, John didn’t start planning how to win them back. Instead he said of Jesus: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Christian ministry is not a competition, but our competitive nature can sneak into it. Choir solos, sermons, fundraisers, offerings, praise hands, potluck contributions – sometimes we can’t help comparing these things, especially if we are good at them. If healthy competition pushes us to do our best work, the ministry may benefit. When we start thinking of our collaborators as rivals, we do a disservice to everyone, and undermine the community and the ministry. Whether an individual or church, we let our lights shine to illuminate the love of Christ, not to put a spotlight on ourselves. Even if we are the very best at something, sometimes we must intentionally step aside to let others play their parts. Being our best – not the best – is what matters.

Mature preachers will say praise and criticism are the same. In other words, they hear feedback, but do Christ’s work for the sake of the work, not the reaction. Praise does not swell their heads, and criticism does not defeat them. This ego-free attitude requires cultivation, but our work will be the better for it. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a compliment for a job well done, but if our focus moves from Jesus to acquiring compliments (or members, or money, or readers), our work suffers.

For others to increase, sometimes we must decrease. But if we do it to help Jesus increase, we rise along with him.

Comfort: The best ministries are collaborations; you don’t have to do everything yourself.

Challenge: Whenever you feel competitive with someone, ask yourself whether it is healthy or unhealthy.

Prayer: Gracious God, teach me to appreciate the diversity of the Body of Christ. Amen.

Discussion: Where do you find yourself competing when you could be cooperating?

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!

Clashing Symbols


Today’s readings (click to open in a new window):
Psalms 123; 146, Genesis 9:1-17, Hebrews 5:7-14, John 3:16-21

When the great flood ended, God made a covenant with Noah and his family never to drown the world again. He set his bow – the rainbow – in the sky to remind him of the covenant every time he gathered clouds. All who saw the rainbow were reminded of God’s promise not to destroy the world again.

Symbols are important to us. A simple image can evoke complex ideas, emotions, and memories. The most prominent Christian symbol is the cross. It reminds us of death and resurrection. It identifies fellow believers. It marks a spot where we can lay down our burdens. Like all effective symbols, it is easily recognized – two simple lines! – and is rich with meaning.

Corporations spend millions of dollars to develop recognizable logos that communicate the essence of their business and inspire loyalty. Who in America doesn’t immediately recognize the Golden Arches and what they stand for? We wear clothes with symbols to telegraph our status, cultural or counter-cultural affiliations, team loyalties, and peer groups. We exchange a lot of information in the shorthand of symbols.

How do we distinguish truly meaningful symbols from the visual noise bombarding us each day? Are religious symbols nothing more than a brand logo? Let’s consider the rainbow. It only appears in the rain, the very thing it is meant to protect us against. And what about the cross? It was an instrument of death, but it is now a symbol of new life. We revisit and ritualize these symbols because they are about transformation, and about movement from struggle to victory. The Nike swoosh can only aspire to such heights.

Let’s use our symbols wisely and appropriately. If the rainbow was in the sky 24/7, it wouldn’t be nearly as powerful. If we slap a Jesus fish or “John 3:16” on everything we own, its power to transport us to a deeper emotional or spiritual frame of mind is diluted, as is the message it sends to others. They are not like flags or team jerseys that define Team Jesus. The symbols of our faith should be like beacons inviting others home.

Comfort: The symbols of our faith can bring us comfort and help remind us of important things.

Challenge: Symbols can confuse or alienate people who don’t understand them. Be thoughtful about using them to welcome rather than to exclude.

Prayer: God of truth, help me to see beyond symbols to the truths behind them. Amen.

Discussion: What symbols are meaningful to you? Why?

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Born Again Identity


Today’s readings (click to open in a new window):
Psalms 135; 145, Genesis 8:6-22, Hebrews 4:14-5:6, John 2:23-3:15

“Born again Christian.” It’s a phrase we’ve all heard, but it can mean many different things depending on our religious background (or lack thereof). It has its origins in Today’s reading from John, when Jesus tells the sympathetic Pharisee Nicodemus: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again” (John 3:3). The Greek wording could also mean “born from above.” The idea of a second birth is confusing to Nicodemus, and Jesus doesn’t really clarify it. For many Christians, this one ambiguous phrase found in only one gospel has become an extremely subjective litmus test for “authentic” Christianity.

The gospels use several images to describe the new life that comes from a relationship with Jesus. Why is this one definitive for so many people? Maybe because it implies the reality of a a complete do-over. Human beings are helpless at birth and depend on their parents for everything. When we surrender ourselves to Jesus, we re-learn how to live and depend totally on God’s grace to carry us through that process. Throughout our lives we find new reasons and new ways to surrender. Our rebirth is not a one-time event occurring at the moment of conversion or baptism, but a constant spiritual renewal.

There is beauty in the image of rebirth, but also a danger of exclusion. Lifelong Christians may never have had a distinct moment of  rebirth, so insisting someone must be “born again” can quickly turn to judgment. It is God’s job – not ours – to judge whether someone is sufficiently Christian.

Whether or not being “born again” is part of our theological vocabulary, renewal is part of life in Christ. Just as the birth of an infant can be simultaneously joyous and scary, so can the changes in our new lives. At times we will need to celebrate, at other times we will need support, and sometimes we will need both. Fellow believers may need the same from us. Our new lives are meant to be shared, so let us be present for each other in all the ways we can.

Comfort: In Christ our life is made new every day.

Challenge: If you don’t have a “born again” story listen to someone who does. If you do have such a story, listen to how someone born into the church experiences their faith.

Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for giving me a fresh start every day. Amen.

Discussion: What do you mean when you say “born again?” If it’s not part of your faith vocabulary, what do you think when you hear 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 Fine Line


Today’s readings (click to open in a new window):
Psalms 19; 150, Genesis 7:1-10, 17-23, Ephesians 4:1-16, Mark 3:7-19

The line between faith an insanity can be hard to identify. When Noah heard the voice of God telling him to build an ark, he must have questioned which side of the line he was on. His neighbors, friends, and family – the ones who didn’t scoff at him outright – surely had questions as well. How must it have felt to explain the enormous construction project going on in his back yard? Following God’s orders very likely ruined his reputation as a stable individual. At least until the rains started.

Not everything God would have us do will make sense to the outside world – and maybe not even to ourselves. Showing generosity to people who haven’t earned it, granting mercy to those who have wronged us, taking in strangers – these things seem scandalous by worldly standards. When God “asks” us to do something – through intuition, conscience, or other means – are we strong enough to ignore the mocking, sometimes hostile voices discouraging us? We probably won’t be asked to accomplish something as huge as 1.5 million cubic feet of boat, but when we open ourselves to ridicule the burden may feel almost as enormous.

When Noah and his family closed the door of the ark, they had no idea how long they might be afloat or what their final fate might be. Following God often means the faith that we are doing the right thing must be sufficient to carry us through dark and confusing times. We want to be sure we are on the right side of that line between faithful and crazy, but we often don’t. When it comes to leaps of faith we can pray, discern, and hope … but we can never be 100% sure. If we turn out to be wrong, or if things just turn out differently than expected, listening to that voice the next time may be difficult.

Not every little whim is a calling from God, but sometimes we need to risk looking a little crazy. That’s OK. We may turn out to be the only one with the good sense to get out of the rain.

Comfort: Faith may ask crazy things of us, but God will see us through.

Challenge: Is anything you have left undone nagging at your conscience? If so, pray and meditate on what’s holding you back.

Prayer: All-knowing God, I will trust you even when I don’t understand you.

Discussion: What’s the most outlandish thing you’ve done on intuition? How did it work out?

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Invitation: The Bow Lady

Every December, for about the last ten years, some friends and I spend a Saturday volunteering at a Christmas “store” run by a local church for families in need. Parents, grandparents, and guardians can select gifts for children and pick up a Christmas dinner while children do crafts and pick out gifts in another part of the building. Most volunteers are either wrappers or personal shoppers guiding the adults. Since I’m not comfortable starting conversations with strangers, and because I worked in a luggage and gift shop for years, I try to stick to the wrapping.
The first year there, I met The Bow Lady.

She was wrapping at the same table I was, but most of her efforts were concentrated on selecting exactly the right bow to go with the paper. Now every hour each table had to wrap dozens of presents that came in all shapes and sizes – from decks of cards to bicycles. The donated gift wrap was a mishmash of colors, styles, and quality and the bows tended not to stick very securely, if at all. Bows were not most volunteer’s highest priority. Sometimes, knowing they were going to fall off anyway, we just tossed a bunch into the bag to apply at home.

But The Bow Lady wanted exactly the right bow on every gift. Not just the ones she was wrapping, but on mine and everyone else’s as well. At one point she removed the bow from a gift I had just wrapped, and replaced it with one she thought looked better.

“Please don’t do that,” I said, feeling miffed.

She didn’t, but she kept making suggestions and nudging bows toward us before moving on to another table.

Over the years, The Bow Lady has remained consistent in her quest for the optimal bow for every gift. She never seems to stay at any table for too long. She doesn’t seem attached to any of the other little groups from the many churches and organizations who volunteer. I suspect she’s associated with the home congregation, but I’m not sure.

All I know is, she’s there every year insisting you could be better about your bow choices.

She hasn’t changed. But this year – about nine years too late – I have.

It occurred to me, I am somebody’s Bow Lady. I undoubtedly have habits and behaviors of which I am unaware that have irked people for years. Sadly there are also behaviors of which I am perfectly aware that seem baked into my fruitcake; they are unappealing, but I am as yet powerless to change them. Those are the ones causing that little bit of shame; a sense of not belonging. I don’t know whether The Bow Lady is aware of how her behaviors can annoy others, but it can’t be easy not having a table to call home.

All I know how to do is show up and be me, and The Bow Lady knows how to show up and be herself. And she has shown up. Faithfully. For ten years. It took me this long to realize the ministry of the Christmas store – like every ministry really – is about more than its stated mission. We can’t compartmentalize how we show Christ’s love to others. The Bow Lady is not an obstacle or quirk to performing the ministry, because every ministry falls under The Ministry. I need to love her better.

And please don’t get the idea I think it’s only me ministering to her. She has, for ten years, patiently asked me to be more thoughtful about gifts I am wrapping under the banner of Christ. Okay that one time it was not so patient, but never once has she been unkind. She is ministering to me also.

We are all showing up as ourselves, discontent but powerless against our own quirks and flaws, hoping to be accepted, and not as loving as we could be.

But there is a table we can call home. It’s Christ’s table. The gifts prepared for us on this table are perfect and timeless. Christ knows us – warts and bows and all – and welcomes us. And he asks us to welcome each other. Warts and bows and all.

If we can do at Christ’s table, we can learn to do it a little better everywhere. Every ministry is just part of The Ministry.

I hope The Bow Lady is there next December. I think Jesus would like it if I invited her to our table.

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

It Rolls Downhill

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Today’s readings (click to open in new window): 
Psalms 104; 149, Genesis 6:9-22, Hebrews 4:1-13, John 2:13-22

“Tourist prices” have been a problem for as long as people have traveled out of town. For example, non-Jewish currency was forbidden inside the temple at Jerusalem, so pilgrims needed to exchange it with money changers in the temple’s outer court before purchasing sacrificial animals. Doves, lambs, and other creatures are difficult to travel with, so livestock merchants also set up shop there. Both money changers and merchants took advantage of captive customers by demanding high prices. When Jesus arrived at the temple, he was so outraged to find “a den of thieves” where people traded faith for profit that he fashioned a whip out of cords and drove them all out. Not only had commerce defiled the temple, the institution that was supposed to protect the people was exploiting them.

The faithful are called to steward our resources justly. That means more than tithing and charity. Wealth does not buy us the privilege to shift social burdens onto the poor. In his encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis describes how the poor are disproportionately affected by climate change and pollution. The wealthy consume resources and produce waste at a much greater rate than the poor, but poor communities are where we dump trash, manufacture toxins, and  ignore contamination. This burden shift occurs down the road and around the globe. Industries with environmentally devastating activities forbidden under national policies exploit poorer, unregulated countries. Many economic and social forces impact the differences between wealthy and poor communities, but property values are not Christian values. Living in a nice neighborhood doesn’t mean we deserve more justice. Faith calls us to deploy our resources in a way that protects the most vulnerable among us.

Are we in the outer court exchanging profit for justice, or are we working to make sure the poor – whom Jesus told us to serve – are at the heart of God’s kingdom? Rock bottom prices have high human costs. Pollutants we vote or litigate out of our back yards are forced into someone else’s. When the choices we make to better our lives negatively impact others, we need to make better choices. Maybe we can start by treating the poor as we would treat our own family … because Christ has made them so.

Comfort: Rich, poor, or in between, God’s justice is meant for all of us equally.

Challenge: Read about how the poor have been unfairly impacted by pollution in Ringwood, New Jersey (also known as Sludge City), Horlivka, Ukraine, or Flint, Michigan.

Prayer: Lord, help me to live justly, not just for my own righteousness, but for the love of your creation. Amen.  

Discussion: Where in your own community do you see links between poverty and injustice?

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Jesus, Life of the Party

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 51; 148, Genesis 6:1-8, Hebrews 3:12-19, John 2:1-12

Christianity is serious business. The language of our faith uses words like sacrifice, atonement, sin, repentance, blood, and crucifixion with alarming regularity. We often speak of love as a demanding experience. We revere saints who deprived themselves of all earthly pleasures and martyrs who died in horrible ways. Suffering and death are undeniable parts of our collective story. If we are supposed to be willing to follow Christ to the cross, why do we ever sing songs like “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy Down in My Heart?”

Despite the bloody reality of the cross and the traditional fire and brimstone sermons we have heard, suffering is not the default position of the Kingdom of God. Christ did not suffer and die just so we could continue suffering and dying. In the book of John, his first public sign is turning water into wine at a wedding banquet. That’s right: he made his public debut at a party, and performed a miracle so the party wouldn’t have to stop. It wasn’t just any party though – it was a celebration of life recognizing a joyous bond between two people, and the bond between each of them and God.

The Cana story does not appear in other Gospels, but in Matthew Jesus describes the Kingdom of God as a wedding banquet where outcasts feast. In this life suffering may be inevitable, but we don’t need to wear it like a uniform to be good Christians. To the contrary, Jesus had little regard for people who put their suffering on display as a show of piety. We are to confront head on the suffering of the world and help where we can, and to rely on God when we ourselves suffer, but we are never to be resigned to misery. While suffering is sometimes the cost of staying the course on the way to the feast, it is not God’s desire for us. The ultimate purpose of the crucifixion was eternal life. Jesus came to heal us, to teach us to forgive, and to celebrate with us. Let’s not forget to RSVP.

Comfort: God wants us to be joyful.

Challenge: Best as you can, don’t run away from people’s suffering; confront it with them without being consumed by it.

Prayer: Lord, lead me to those whom I can help, and open my hearts and hands to them. Amen.

Discussion: Suffering is part of life. Is there a way to make it useful?

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Wretched Refuse(d)

statue-of-liberty-2407489_1920Welcome to the first entry of C+C 2.0. As mentioned near the end of last year, I’m going to do some pieces that are a departure from the devotional and invitational posts. This one hits on topics that some consider political – specifically some comments recently made by our president – but I have no interest in partisanship. I do have interest in the intersection of America and Christianity. If that piques your interest, read on; otherwise another devotional will be up soon. Peace!

“Why do we want all these people from ‘shithole countries’ coming here?”
– President Donald J. Trump

So at last it’s laid clearly on the table; this is what a “Christian nation”  – or at least the representative it elects – thinks about immigration. We can cry all we want about how he doesn’t really represent us, but we elected him. He’s no surprise.

Let me make this clear from jump: this isn’t about legal or illegal immigration. The justice of that situation also desperately needs attention, but it’s a separate matter.

No, this is about how some of the wealthiest people in one of the wealthiest countries in the world view poor people, especially non-white poor people. It’s about failing to recognize the context of history, and how many of these “shithole” nations find themselves in dire straits largely due to colonial and capitalist exploitation by the rich and powerful – sometimes from the West and sometimes internally – and then dismissing them as failed states full of less-than-human beings.

This is about how a faith community claiming to follow a savior who said “Whatsoever you failed to do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you failed to do for me” (yeah, that’s the second part) could view and treat the “least” with passive contempt.

It’s about how America – in sad parallel with American Christianity – has become less a refuge of freedom for those oppressed  by empire, poverty, and discrimination …  and more an empire itself ferociously hoarding wealth and power in one hand while waving a flag of equality and freedom in the other. The crosses stretching across America have become support poles for the ultimate velvet rope of the most exclusive club, defining who gets in and who stays out based on who the owners of the nation (and the faith) like to be seen with.

America is in the business of continental gentrification. Now that we’ve pushed out the savages and ruffians and got the neighborhood up and running, we don’t want to let in “those” people who will take advantage of it and ruin it. Never mind the inconvenient history of building it on the backs of wave after wave of “those” people. African and Asian and Eastern European and Jewish and Catholic and Latin American and the endless variety of people we saw as less-than-human beings for a generation or so until we were up in arms about the next group threatening to ruin the neighborhood. Thanks for finishing that railroad. Your seat is in the back. Your neighborhood is across town.

In large part, immigration has long been a recruitment effort. The Polish and Hungarian neighborhoods in my town were the direct result of businesses bringing in entire communities to meet labor demands. These people didn’t come because they were already wealthy and successful. They came for the opportunity to escape shitholes. Without them, wealth sat idle. With them, it built cities, communities, churches, museums, and the rest of a nation.

But here’s the difference between running a business and running a nation. Once a business is done with the cheap labor (or replacing the expensive labor with automation) those people are no longer the responsibility of the business. A nation is never done with its responsibility. Citizens are not FTEs. We need to take them into account, or they will turn on each other.

It’s no coincidence this swell of populism is occurring during a time of divided wealth, deteriorating infrastructure, and decreasing church attendance. A national or religious empire (and have they ever really been separate in the West?) in decline is an animal which has cornered itself, and is therefore a danger to itself. When we were tackling frontiers, risk brought reward. Now that we have nowhere to expand and those we trampled on are forcing us to face the questionable tactics we used for that expansion, the greatest risk is admitting we’re not who we think we are. Even the middle and lower classes are defensive of criticisms of the rich when tribal reputation is all they have left to cling to.

I don’t actually think of America as a Christian nation, nor would I like it to be. I’m not at all keen on anything that smacks of theocracy. When you get my government in your religion they aren’t “two great tastes that taste great together” (anyone remember those commercials?); they’re more – and excuse my presidential language here – a shit sandwich.

But despite our worse instincts, some actual Christ-like influence has managed to permeate the culture. Those words about the tired, poor, huddled masses on the State of Liberty may be a product of an enlightened France, but they resonate with the religion that says God backs a loser. Even when our country – and our faith – don’t live up to the hype, citizens and would-be-citizens cling to the ideal expressed in those words. After all, most our families didn’t come here because the government was recruiting the already successful, but because the nation welcomed, needed, and sometimes stole the poor; some part of us remembers where we’ve come from, even when our own success and fear of sharing it diminish our enthusiasm for extending that same dream to others.

Businesses that contribute to society. Nations that contribute to the world. Faith that contributes to the Kingdom.  Have we – or our representatives – forgotten they are all built on the “least of these?”

A powerful business, nation, or faith that turns its focus inward and seeks to protect itself at the expense of others is not a reflection of Christ. Heck we’d have to get out the silverware polish and a sandblaster to uncover even the barest glimmer of common decency.

If you really want to give a hand up instead of a handout, you have to be willing to get your hands dirty. Yes, welcoming the stranger is scary. Christ says welcome them anyway. Yes, a small minority will want to take advantage. Christ says give to all who ask of you.  (Right about now you’re tempted to rationalize that into something practical. Why? Christ wasn’t practical.)  Yes, your way of life may feel threatened. Christ says there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friend, and if we truly claim Christ as our friend, who then can we exclude from friendship?

A church or a nation that gets disheveled and dirty because it’s in the business of turning the hopeless into the hopeful is doing its job. Christianity and America are not meant to be beautiful, sterile showplaces focused on preserving their own self-proclaimed wonderfulness. They are meant to be sources of justice in not just a legal sense but a moral one, and justice takes guts and grime.

Through our faith language and our nigh-religious devotion to capitalism, we have turned spiritual and economic salvation into “I’ve-got-mine” individual experiences, when true salvation is communal. Doing so has impoverished us in countless ways. True salvation seeks not to isolate, but to replicate. When much is given, much is expected. Jesus said that, too.

Why do we want all these people from shithole countries coming here?

If we are Christian, the answer is “Jesus said so.”

If we are American, the answer is “they have and will make us stronger.”

If we are both, why are we still asking the question?

God out of Nazareth


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab or window):
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, Genesis 4:17-26, Hebrews 3:1-11, John 1:43-51

Soon after Philip the apostle met Jesus, he found his friend Nathanael and said:”We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael replied: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Of course he was swayed once he actually met Jesus, but his initial skepticism is noteworthy.

The village of Nazareth did not have much of a reputation. It was small and relatively obscure. Suggesting the Messiah could emerge from Nazareth seemed ridiculous even to its own citizens, who repeatedly rejected Jesus and his teachings. Yet a Nazarene he was, defying all doubt and eclipsing all expectations.

It’s not fair, but the world pigeonholes people based on the circumstances of their birth. Inner city kids are thugs. Immigrants from the middle east are suspected terrorists. Women are less capable than men and men are less nurturing than women. Pretty people are stupid and nerds are lonely. Stereotypes  are endless. Like Nathanael we sometimes encounter someone who demolishes one of our biases, but many of them remain unchallenged. One might think that being subjected to a stereotype would make a person less likely to do the same to others, but it isn’t so. We all justify our own biases and the world is poorer for it.

Where is your Nazareth? It may be an actual place, like Detroit or Syria. It may lie in an opposing political or religious ideology. It could be buried in the pigmentation of someone’s skin cells.You may not be able to locate it easily, because it doesn’t necessarily stand out as a place you actively dislike, but perhaps a place you can casually dismiss. Nazareth is any place or circumstance you use as an excuse to invalidate a person or their voice.

Jesus overcame all the obstacles of his birth. So can we, because we are children of God. And we need to give others the same chance. Let us each work to examine and dismantle our prejudices so we can look at each other and see the face of Christ, Nazarene and Messiah.

Comfort: You are more than any label. You are a child of God.

Challenge: Ask a friend you trust what your biases are. Don’t argue with them about what they say, just listen with an open mind and heart.

Prayer: Loving God, teach me to see you in all people, even when I don’t want to.

Discussion: What biases have you formerly held which you no longer hold?

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!

Blame Game


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, Genesis 4:1-16, Hebrews 2:11-18, John (1:29-34) 35-42

The story of Cain and Abel is the original tale of sibling rivalry. Cain, the first child of Adam and Eve, was a “tiller of the ground” and made God an offering of his harvest. His brother Abel was a shepherd, and offered God the finest of his flock. God favored Abel’s offering but not Cain’s, and in jealous anger Cain slew Abel with a rock. Instead of killing Cain, God instead banished him east of Eden and placed a mark of protection on him so no one else would kill him either.

Stories of rivalry are seldom so extreme, but Cain made a common mistake: when things didn’t go his way, he assumed the role of victim.

When God noticed Cain was angry because his offering was not respected, he asked Cain: “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted?” Cain never stopped to ask himself (or God) what he might have done differently. Instead he directed his anger toward Abel. God had advised him: “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” As God predicted, blaming Abel for his failure led to an even bleaker fate.

Our reaction to failure determines the course of our future. Not being honest with ourselves about our own contributions to a failed effort can have disastrous results for ourselves and those around us. Even when we feel someone has taken advantage of us, we can ask whether and how we made it possible. This doesn’t excuse the other person, but restores our sense of control over the situation and prepares us for similar situations in the future.

We’ll never know why God  rejected Cain’s offer, because he didn’t ask. When we bungle a project at work or handle a family situation poorly, it’s tempting, easy, and human to blame the circumstances, a co-worker, or a spouse. Once that’s out of your system, you need to look inward. In any situation, you are the only person you can control.

Comfort: When you make mistakes, God is not waiting to condemn but to help.

Challenge: Reconsider a situation – from a time when you were an adult – where you blame someone else for failure or problems. Ask yourself what you might have done differently, and what could you do differently in the future.

Prayer: God, teach me to see myself as I am, not as I pretend to be. Amen.

Discussion: How often do you play the victim?

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