Waters of Baptism

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 104; 150, Isaiah 40:1-11, Hebrews 1:1-12, John 1:1-7, 19-20, 29-34

Baptism of the Lord readings:
Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17


John the Baptist dedicated his life to boldly preparing the way for the Messiah. Yet when Jesus came to be baptized, John hesitated and said he was unworthy – that Jesus should be baptizing him. Jesus reassured him all was as it should be. According to the Gospels of Matthew and John, the heavens opened, the Spirit came to rest on Jesus, and a voice declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

This story begins a consistent portrait of Christ throughout the Gospels. Though he is the Messiah, Jesus remains humble. Despite his disciples’ protests, he washes their feet at the Last Supper. As the crucifixion draws nearer, he doesn’t seek to be exempt from the laws or the courts. When we accept the baptism of the Spirit, we accept that to be our greatest, we must become the least.

Christ-like leaders – followers of Christ in general, really don’t expect special treatment, see themselves as above the rules, or shift blame and accountability. They don’t expect more of others than they do of themselves. Recognizing leadership as a servant’s burden, they accept the consequences of doing and saying the difficult but necessary things, and approach the role with humility rather than hubris. In baptism we are made equal, and whether our role is prince or pauper we are endowed with dignity and enslaved to service.

But equal in theory is not the same as equal in practice. John the Baptist, quoting the prophet Isaiah, says valleys must be filled and mountains leveled to make straight the path of the Lord. Justice doesn’t begin with equality, but with recognizing everyone doesn’t start from the same situation. Asking two people to each roll a boulder a mile sounds equal, but when one is facing uphill and the other down, it just isn’t so. Justice is never a simple declaration, but the difficult construction of a wide road, then the willingness to travel side-by-side.

The waters of baptism wash the scales of injustice from our eyes. Like Christ, let us see beyond a status quo that settles for fair into a future that is truly just.

Comfort: In Christ we are all equal.

Challenge: Each day this week, ask yourself how you can be a better servant.

Prayer: Bless the Lord, O my soul; praise the Lord! Amen.

Discussion: Have you known of examples of where treating people “fairly” is different than treating them justly?

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Epiphanies

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 72; 148, Isaiah 52:7-10, Revelation 21:22-27, Matthew 12:14-21
Epiphany readings:
Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12


Happy Epiphany! Today is the last day of the Christmas season. Our traditional reading is about the Magi: wise men who – led by a prophecy and a star – traveled from far lands to honor the infant Christ with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Some people wait until today to add the Magi to complete their nativity scenes and continue to display it until February 2nd, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord.

If you haven’t yet listened to “We Three Kings” this season, today’s your day!

But the story of the Magi has a darker side. On their way to Bethlehem, the Magi visited King Herod to ask where the newborn King of the Jews might be found. Herod, jealous and fearful, met with the chief priests and scribes to learn all he could about the prophesied messiah, and tried to pump the Magi for information. He told them “when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” In truth, he was less interested in homage than homicide. The Magi, warned in a dream not to return to Herod, went home by another route.

In our daily readings, the same crowd– still fearful of Jesus and all he represents – is conspiring to destroy the adult Jesus. For a time he goes underground, but continues his ministry of healing and justice. Jesus always is who he says he is; his enemies (and some of them claim to serve him) are not.

What exactly does “epiphany” mean? It is a moment of insight or revelation. One of the most important epiphanies in this story is when the Magi realize Herod’s intent differs from his words. We would be wise to follow their example. Often those who govern – religiously or civilly – publicly promote one agenda but follow another. From slapping misleading titles on legislation, to unnecessarily “protecting” a powerful group in order to suppress another more vulnerable one, to rewriting history that judges them unfavorably, people tell us what they think we want to hear in order to lull us into going along with something else. In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell called it doublethink, and it empowered tyranny.

Some epiphanies are spontaneous. Others are the product of critical thinking. As followers of Christ, let’s strive to be like the Magi and stay ready for both.

Comfort: Jesus is always who he claims to be.

Challenge: Maintain a healthy skepticism of those in power, especially those who tell you what you want to hear.

Prayer: God of truth and light, I will seek to follow you always! Amen.

Discussion: What’s the last epiphany you had?

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Quantum Leap of Faith

Today’s readings:
Psalms 98; 146; Genesis 17:1-12a, 15-16; Colossians 2:6-12; John 16:23b-30


Birthdays. Anniversaries. New Years.

Certain annual events just seem to invite us to simultaneously reflect on the past and dream about the future. Other unexpected, less celebratory events such as the death of a parent or the loss of a job, may trigger similar feelings for us. Anticipated or not, these times leave us in a sort of “in-between” state when we are not necessarily in motion but contemplating where have been and where we are going. They can be fertile times for resolutions, plans and convictions – some which will stick, and some which won’t.

While periods of planning and intention often serve a purpose, sometimes we settle for intentions rather than actual change. If we are really going to grow as people, eventually we need to stop planning … and start changing.

Other than the TV show, what do you think of when you hear the phrase “quantum leap?” Many people think it means a large change, but it’s actually a term from physics that means an immediate change from one state to another with no intermediate phases – no “in-between” time. The phrase also describes a phenomenon in thought where we jump from Point A (perhaps a problem we are trying to solve) to Point B (its solution) without discernible steps and connections.

Spiritual growth can occur like a quantum leap. When Abram accepts God’s promise to become the father of the future nation of Israel, he is immediately transformed into Abraham. Paul tells the Colossians that when they were baptised they were raised from death along with Christ – a change in state if there ever was one. The psalmist tells us “The Lord sets the prisoners free” and “opens the eyes of the blind.”

Abram to Abraham. Dead to living. Imprisoned to free. Quantum leaps.

There’s nothing wrong with making plans, but often when we are called to act in faith, plans mean very little. Abraham’s wife (who leapt from Sarai to Sarah) planned to grow old and die childless, and laughed when God told her otherwise. We all should be careful not to let our plans become impediments to our faith.

The psalmist warns us not to place our trust in mortal plans that perish but in God alone. It may be wise to look before leaping, but if we can’t … maybe God is calling us to make a quantum leap of faith from blindness to sight.

Comfort: With God’s strength, you can keep moving forward in ways that may surprise you.

Challenge: Pick something you’ve been planning to change, and actually do it.

Prayer: Wise and Loving God, I will trust in your ways.

Discussion: Can you remember any times you had an unexpected shift in attitude, belief, or habits?

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Point of View

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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?

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Faith Like a Child

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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?

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Love One Another

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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?

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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?

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Incarnate

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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?

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Shepherds

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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!

Get Over It

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 22; 148, Exodus 9:13-35, 2 Corinthians 4:1-12, Mark 10:32-45


When Christians – or any other religions – gain secular power, trouble follows. Some Christians like to claim we live in a nation that is – or at least should be – Christian. What exactly does that mean? To which particular branch of Christianity do they refer? And most importantly what part of the teachings of Jesus leads them to believe political power is a good influence on Christian character – or vice versa?

Jesus tells his disciples repeatedly, they are to be servants as he is a servant. To be first, they must be slaves of all. We live in a time and place where practicing our faith does not threaten our well-being. On the other hand, having been told that we should expect persecution, we have greatly skewed our sense of what that means. Having no real reason to fear martyrdom, we behave as if any loosening of our grasp on power and control is a form of persecution. For evidence we only need look as far as the trumped up War on Christmas: how did temples to commerce become a battlefront for religious freedom? Then there’s the outrage over religious displays which have been removed from government property or – worse yet! – made inclusive. Government establishment of our religion makes us beholden to that government – the antithesis of what Jesus taught.

In twenty-first century America we simply don’t suffer serious persecution for our faith – unless allowing people to disagree with us or having our feelings hurt has become a form of persecution. Instead of railing against perceived slights, we should celebrate them! When we rub society the wrong way, we’re just doing our job. When we rub other Christians the wrong way, we’re probably earning overtime. Paul says: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” Does that sound like “Happy Holidays?” When we trade grace for outrage at everyone who doesn’t follow our beliefs, we demonstrate a faith too weak to handle the persecution ladled on those who truly spread the Good (but sometimes unpopular) News.

Comfort: Your faith doesn’t obligate you to be outraged over petty things.

Challenge: A lot of the things we think of as religiously sanctioned – think Christmas shopping – are really not.

Prayer: God of Mercy, help me to walk and speak humbly but confidently in your light. Amen.

Discussion: What things offend you more than they maybe should?

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