Everything Old Is New Again


Today’s readings:
Psalms 98; 149, Isaiah 26:1-6, 2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2, John 8:12-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  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!

Point of View


Today’s readings:
Psalms 98; 150, Isaiah 62:6-7, 10-12, Hebrews 2:10-18, Matthew 1:18-25

Luke’s nativity story, which we read on Christmas, focuses on Mary, her faithful response to God, and her feelings about the birth of the Messiah. Now we read Matthew’s nativity story – a much shorter version which presents us mostly Joseph’s point of view. Reading both gives us a more complete picture of this story.

Luke says little about Joseph other than introducing him as Mary’s betrothed husband. He doesn’t mention Joseph’s internal struggles about the situation. Did Mary know about them? Matthew tells us that when Joseph learns Mary is pregnant, he decides to quietly divorce her. Under the law he would have been within his rights to punish her severely, but Matthew says Joseph is a righteous man with no desire to disgrace her. Perhaps Jesus remembered this bit of family lore when he stopped a crowd from stoning a woman caught in adultery.

An angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, and explains the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Joseph stays married and raises the child as his own. This decision would have had repercussions long after it was made. People were just as skeptical of Virgin births and angelic dreams then as now. Gossip and whispers probably followed Joseph for a long time, though we don’t hear much more about him, except for how he keeps his young family safe.

Whatever your take on the virgin birth, this story can teach us a lot. We never really know how people arrive at decisions and situations. Our attempts to fill in the blanks are usually inaccurate at best, and judgmental at worst.

The person we think is a sucker for staying with a cheating spouse, or a young woman who got herself into trouble, or a hapless refugee family, has an entire backstory (or two, or twelve) that we don’t understand. They might not be raising the Messiah, but neither are we. Examining our own stories – the good and the bad – from different perspectives may just help us understand someone else’s story is not there for us to judge, but to hear. Joseph shows us righteousness is not always about seeking the fullest extent of punishment available under the law; it may just begin with taking time to learn the other person’s story.

Comfort: God knows your story.

Challenge: Think about someone you are prone to judge. How much of your judgment is based on what you know, and how much is supposition? Read this article on one school’s attempt to use restorative justice instead of defaulting to prescribed punishments.

Prayer: God of all stories, I will live my life for you alone. Amen.

Discussion: When have you found out your understanding of a situation was completely wrong?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group or follow @comf_and_chall on Twitter. You’ll  have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Don’t Shoot the Messenger


Today’s readings:
Psalms 96; 147:12-20, Isaiah 12:1-6, Revelation 1:1-8, John 7:37-52

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

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

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

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

Comfort: Truth will serve you well.

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

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

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

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll  have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Faith Like a Child


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

When his disciples asked Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” he called over a child and replied, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” 

What trappings of adulthood cause us to stumble? Pride? Possessions? Whatever they are, we need to cut them from our lives like the offending hand or eye Jesus warned us about.

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

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

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

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

Comfort: You don’t have to control everything.

Challenge: Don’t try to control everything.

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

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

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

The Real War on Christmas Began December 26th

Because Comfort + Challenge is a devotional effort, not an editorial one, I try to keep the content as inclusive as possible. I’ve started a second blog called The Other Hand for more personal, longer format, possibly controversial content. I don’t suspect it will be for everyone who subscribes to C+C. If you’d like to check it out, my first real post is below.

The Other Hand

Yesterday, December 26th, I went out into the
world to take advantage of some sales on discounted wrapping paper. Yeah the
crowds suck, but the quality stuff is expensive so I’m not paying full price. In
every store, Christmas was already being dismantled and put on clearance in
favor of the next retail season (presumably Valentine’s Day but who can keep up
with all the holidays churned out by greeting card companies?).

You know what I didn’t see, or hear on the news? Anybody
protesting the War on Christmas.

“But wait!” you may object, “That’s because Christmas is

Ah, not so. The Twelve Days of Christmas is not just a song
about epically impractical gifts. The Christmas season – or Christmastide – as defined
on the church calendar starts on
December 25th (you can slide into the evening of the 24th)
and ends with…

View original post 774 more words

Love One Another


Today’s readings:
Psalms 34; 147:1-11, Proverbs 8:22-30, 1 John 5:1-12, John 13:20-35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comfort: Christ’s love is constant.

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

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

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

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll  have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Stephen the Leader

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

Today’s readings:
Psalms 116; 145, 2 Chronicles 24:17-22, Acts 6:1-7, Acts 7:59-8:8

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

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

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

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

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

Comfort: Everyone can help make the church better.

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

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

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

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



Today’s daily readings:
Psalms 2; 150, Zechariah 2:10-13, 1 John 4:7-16, John 3:31-36

Christmas readings:
Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12), John 1:1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comfort: God is everywhere.

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

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

Discussion: What parts of Christianity do you find difficult?

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



Today’s readings:
Psalms 90; 149, Isaiah 35:1-10, Revelation 22:12-17, 21, Luke 1:67-80

Christmas Eve readings:
Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96:1-13, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

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

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

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

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

Why him? he wondered. Why them?

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

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

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

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

He would need a shepherd’s strength.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group or follow @comf_and_chall on Twitter. You’ll  have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Naming our Faith


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

Many cultures believe names – and knowledge of names – contain power. In some cultures a person has two names: one for public use, and a private, secret name known to a few or maybe only the one who bestowed it. In other cultures, a person acquires a new name upon completion of a rite of passage into adulthood. Within our communities, we are concerned with protecting “our good name.”

As Christians we don’t revere names as magical, but we do recognize the importance of identity. Christenings and confirmations are powerful examples.

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

This act of naming – like John the Baptist himself – signifies a change in tradition. It shatters expectations. John defines his own wild, confusing, holy identity as the herald of the messiah.

As Christians, we too are in the business of defying society to forge identities in Christ.

That statement may seem dramatic in a predominantly Christian country like the U.S., but cultural Christianity and life in Christ are separate issues. Jesus fish magnets, Christian radio stations, and Christian dating websites are a sign that in some ways Christianity has become identified more with a consumer brand than a faith identity. Some Christians avoid calling themselves “Christian” not because they are ashamed of Christ, but because of negative associations with scandal and hypocrisy.

Even within the Christian community, we struggle against our own deeply ingrained traditions and expectations to seek the true heart of Christ, and are met with resistance and outright hostility from fellow Christians. When we have the courage to defy expectation and define our own names, our new voices – like Zechariah’s voice – can claim the name “Christian” for positive, meaningful, grace-filled ways.

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

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

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

Discussion: What does your name mean to you?

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