Rights and Wrongs

butterfly-757995_1920

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 116; 147:12-20, 2 Kings 18:28-37, 1 Corinthians 9:1-15, Matthew 7:22-29


The Apostle Paul was aware some church members were quick to criticize him. He was careful not to hand those people ammunition to use against him. Many apostles lived off the generosity of the community because they felt the service they provided justified those benefits. Paul compared it to military service, where one was not expected to fund the expenses of serving. Without benefactors many would not have been able to do the work of evangelizing, which is why under the religious Law it was basically a right. Paul and his close associate Barnabas purposely did not avail themselves of those rights so no one could claim they were in it for the benefits rather than the faith.

Do we ever exercise our rights to the point where we are no longer doing what is right? Or do we submit our civil rights to our moral responsibilities and our integrity? For example, we can remain well within our legal rights as employers and still exploit our workers. Even Christians will claim “it’s just business” to excuse shabby and outright unethical treatment of neighbors who also happen to be employees or vendors. In times not-so-long past sixteen hours a day of forced child labor was perfectly legal, but it was never a just way to do business.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul mentioned more than once how not everything that was permissible was beneficial. He taught we are to serve our neighbor’s good before our own, even if that means abdicating some of our own rights. Is that a thought we’re comfortable with today? We throw around the idea of “rights” without really agreeing on what that means. Constitutional rights? Nations have constitutions which vary widely. Human rights? We can’t agree on them in a single country, let alone universally. And they are often at odds.

Did Jesus spend more time talking about rights or responsibilities? If the gospel we try to live and spread is to look and sound like Jesus,  perhaps the conversation among Christians needs to shift accordingly. When we pray to be forgiven our debts as we forgive our debtors, let’s reflect on what standard we’re setting.

Comfort: God is merciful.

Challenge: Be merciful in gratitude.

Prayer:  If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered. (Psalm 130:3-4)

Discussion: If you had to write a Bill of Responsibilities for the constitution, what would be at the top?

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!

Junk Drawer

20171004_224149-01

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 147:1-11, 2 Kings 18:9-25, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Matthew 7:13-21


What if the secret to life was at the bottom of your junk drawer? It could be lying there just under a dried up glue stick, a souvenir Disney keychain that’s too big for your pocket, and that not-quite-eleven inch piece of twine that will be perfect for something … someday (not). Not that it’s some seemingly worthless item which unlocks your mind and heart. What if the secret to life was the bottom of the drawer itself? Once you’ve actually emptied that drawer and kept it empty, you’ve learned something about paring away the unnecessary.

And if you’re thinking, “Then I could use the drawer for something meaningful” … stop.

You don’t need to fill the drawer. You really don’t. A drawer with nothing in it may seem like the most pointless thing in the world, but if you can become comfortable with it, that’s the first step to realizing what’s in all the other drawers might not be so meaningful either.

Jesus told his disciples, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

So why is Jesus hidden behind the narrow gate? Why not hang out on the wide road that seems more inviting? If you want to get through a narrow gate, you can’t be loaded down with a lot of junk. Bulging backpacks and overstuffed luggage aren’t going to cut it. It’s hard to truly depend on God when we’re carrying around baggage – physical, emotional, theological – that is evidence we’re relying on everything we’ve managed to amass for ourselves. The gate is narrow so we arrive on the other side carrying only what is essential.

If we can’t keep one drawer empty, how will we get rid of the rest of it?

The secret to navigating that hard road and narrow gate isn’t always finding the right gear. Sometimes it’s more a matter of dropping everything that’s useless.

Comfort: You don’t have to have the solution to everything.

Challenge: Empty one drawer in your home.

Prayer: Loving God, help me to shed everything that stands between me and you. Amen.

Discussion: What’s in your junk drawer?

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!

#notalllogs

logs-498538_1920

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 12; 146, 2 Chronicles 29:1-3, 30:1 (2-9) 10-27, 1 Corinthians 7:32-40, Matthew 7:1-12


Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?

Jesus didn’t seem concerned with teaching us to identify flaws in other people – that job had too many people doing it already. Rather, Jesus invites you (and me) to repent and reflect, not to feel smug about telling others to do it. Yet somehow we manage to twist his words to point fingers and deflect criticism – Get the log out of your eye before you talk to me about my speck! – when confronted with our own failings. Repentance is something we embrace, not something we inflict.

While repentance is a personal pursuit, it has communal dimensions. Belonging to a specific community doesn’t make us responsible for the actions of every individual in the community, but … Paul’s letters are full of expectations that we hold our community – our body – accountable for its behavior. When one or a few people undermined the character of the Christian church, Paul didn’t accept “it wasn’t me” as an excuse to ignore the behavior.

In Paul’s case he was addressing a church, but community comes in many forms, sometimes with involuntary membership. Gender is an example of a community to which we belong but do not (generally) choose. While gender equality has made remarkable strides over the last century, there are still systemic injustices which need attention. When a topic like sexual harassment is broached, almost invariably some men respond with “not all men are like that.” It’s a defensive reaction meant to communicate, “Hey, I’m one of the good guys!” In reality, “not all men” derails the conversation; it prioritizes “my” comfort with being a man over problems women actually face. When the community has a plank in its left eye, what exactly is accomplished by pointing out how healthy the right one is?

Of course gender is just one example. Is it possible we are even more accountable for communities we join voluntarily? Not all Christians? Not all Democrats? Not all gun-owners? Not all police officers? Not all protesters? And none of these groups (and countless more) are mutually exclusive! The thread of our accountability runs through a series of knots where we’ve anchored ourselves to others.

Let us – individuals and communities – whittle away at those planks until they disappear. We might be surprised to discover how much we contribute to a problem and how much more we can contribute to a solution once we commit to seeing clearly.

Comfort: Community is a blessing.

Challenge: Let’s keep it that way.

Prayer: I will give to the LORD the thanks due to his righteousness, and sing praise to the name of the LORD, the Most High. (Psalm 7:17)

Discussion: Do you ever feel pressured to ignore problems of a group you belong to?

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!

Enough for today

lilies

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 62; 145, 2 Kings 17:24-41, 1 Corinthians 7:25-31, Matthew 6:25-34


Has anyone ever stopped worrying because someone said, “Stop worrying?”

When Jesus told his disciples not to worry about having enough food (God takes care of the birds!) or clothing (God dresses the grass itself in lilies!), or about life in general (can you add an hour to your life that way?) he knew this.  He had a bigger point to make.

No matter how well off we might be, we are still prone to worry. The impulse to get food on our table and have a roof to keep that table under, as well as the fear we could lose it all, drives our behavior in instinctual, inescapable ways. On some level we doubt that faith alone will provide for all our material needs; the history of humankind does more to confirm than to dispel that doubt.

But that’s not all Jesus was saying.

After the birds and the lilies, he says, “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” We can read this at least a couple ways. The first is the simpler: have faith and live righteously, and God will provide. The second is broader. In telling us to strive for the kingdom, it asks us to be the instruments of justice as described by citizenship in the kingdom. In the service of kingdom justice, we feed the hungry, tend to the sick, clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger. By being the last and by tending to the troubles of today – not just our troubles, but the troubles of our neighbor – we expand the kingdom in a way that begins to soothe that primal, hungry fear.

The end of worry is a long term endeavor. We still work toward it. Yes we are assured we can let go of individual worry for this particular day, but that process is inseparable from how we participate in the life of our greater community. When we sacrifice our lives to a kingdom free from worry, we will be freed in turn. We will not stop worrying because we are told to, but because we are told how.

Comfort: There is relief from worry.

Challenge: When you worry, ask yourself what you should be doing instead.

Prayer: Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you. (Psalm 73:25)

Discussion: What is the difference between worrying and preparing?

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!

Caught

network-1028678_1920

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 108; 150, 2 Kings 17:1-18, Acts 9:36-43, Luke 5:1-11


Something a little different today: light meditation on Luke’s story of Jesus recruiting the first apostles.

[Jesus] got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.

Isn’t this often how we encounter God? Going about our daily business, generally aware that he’s around, but not focused on him until he steps up and asks something of us. That’s when we start paying attention; when we really listen for what he has to tell us.

“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

How often do we put off turning to God until after we’ve exhausted all other options? We rely on our own plans, our own strength, and then even when we listen to him it’s more out of a sense of desperation or obligation than strong conviction.

When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats.

The rewards of following Christ are both personal and communal. When we let the Spirit fill us to bursting, we can’t help but share that bounty with our neighbors. When we overflow with love, those we help are also helping us.

But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

When we realize the magnitude of Christ’s gifts of love and forgiveness, we may not feel worthy. Yet Christ hasn’t asked our opinion on the matter; his sacrifice was for everyone. Choosing to accept it is not about whether we deserve it, but about loving him for making it.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

May we go and do likewise.

Amen.

Comfort: Christ’s invitation to follow is for everyone.

Challenge: Ask yourself if there’s anything you need to leave behind to follow Christ.

Prayer: Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth; sing the glory of his name;
give to him glorious praise. (Psalm 66:1-2)

Discussion: How would you feel about Jesus showing up at your job?

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!

Whaddya know?

adult-education-2706977_1920.jpg

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 149, 2 Kings 11:1-20a, 1 Corinthians 7:10-24, Matthew 6:19-24


In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul offers a teaching to men and women who have become followers of Christ, but whose spouses are unbelievers. He tells them not to divorce if the unbeliever still consents to stay together; indeed the unbelieving spouse is made holy by their union and may yet be saved. However if the unbelieving partner leaves, the believer is not bound by the marriage.

Paul makes clear to his audience an important distinction about this teaching and some of his others: it comes from him, not from God. Paul’s marriage advice was based on faithful conclusions he drew from his best understanding of Christ and the gospel, and undoubtedly he fully believed what he was saying, but he was still humble enough not to speak on behalf of God.

A lot of preachers – and for that matter a lot of lay people – fail to make that same distinction, even internally.

For example, we all know about television and radio evangelists, and local clergy as well, who just can’t seem to resist any opportunity to blame a natural disaster on some group of sinners. They will declare it the wrath of God or a message from Christ without any evidence beyond their own axe to grind. For purposes of this comparison it doesn’t even matter whether they are right: what matters is they don’t know whether they are or not, but claim it as if God told them personally. Talk about taking the Lord’s name in vain.

We can know better. More importantly, we can do better. Let’s never be so certain we know who God wants to punish that we don’t leave room for mercy. Remember Zoar? That’s the city God spared, but people who want us to remember (and misrepresent) only Sodom and Gomorrah don’t tend to bring it up. And then there’s Nineveh: God strong-armed his not-so-faithful servant Jonah into convincing them to repent when Jonah would rather have seen them destroyed.

Our national or cultural enemies – even the sinners we really think ought to – do not define God’s enemies. Our thoughts – even ones that seem soundly theological – are not God’s thoughts. We want to be very careful not to attribute our own words to God. Better to faithfully ponder and acknowledge how little we know for a lifetime than to try standing firm on nothing.

Comfort: Great faith doesn’t always have answers.

Challenge: Don’t try to make your biases into God’s biases.

Prayer: I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name. (Psalm 63:4)

Discussion: What’s the difference between admitting what we don’t know, and being the type of “lukewarm” believer Christ warns against?

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!

As we forgive…

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 88; 148, 2 Kings 9:17-37, 1 Corinthians 7:1-9, Matthew 6:7-15


If you found out you were going to die tomorrow, would you have time to forgive all the people who had wronged you?

When Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, he included “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Some translations of this prayer use the word “sin” or “trespass” instead of debt, but the meaning is pretty clear; Jesus explains the prayer by telling them they will be forgiven in the spirit which they forgive.

That’s bad news for grudge holders.

The good news is forgiveness in this sense is not about how we feel – which is something we can’t control – but about how we act, which is something we can control. Like loving our neighbors doesn’t require any actual affection, forgiving our debtors doesn’t involve resigning ourselves to whatever trespass they’ve committed against us. In the long run for our own peace of mind and mental health it’s probably preferable to get to emotionally better places, but we don’t have to be there yet to do what Christ has us pray. Does that sound hypocritical? Christ’s instructions are indifferent to our emotions, so acting on those instructions when we don’t feel like it is not so much disingenuous as it is a testament to faithfulness.

Forgiveness is a vital component of faith. Jesus speaks of it many times. If withholding forgiveness can keep us separated from God, it must be sinful. Yet we seem to spend so much more time preaching, talking about, and judging each other on a list of Dos-and-Don’ts we can’t even agree on. We’re happy to quote Paul and tell fornicators and the sexually immoral they won’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but we don’t say much to address the people in the pews who refuse to let go of a neighborhood feud over fence height.

We love because we are loved. We forgive because we are forgiven. How we feel about it while we do it is not the point. How we feel about it afterward  might just nudge our hearts even closer to God.

Comfort: You are forgiven.

Challenge: You must forgive.

Prayer: [Recite the Lord’s Prayer]

Discussion: Does your ability to forgive someone depend on whether they seem sorry?

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!

Pie(ty) in the Face

people-2585962_1920

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 143; 147:12-20, 2 Kings 9:1-16, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18


If a Christian prays in a forest and nobody hears, does she or he make a sound?

Maybe the answer to that question is, “God hears either way.”

Jesus taught his disciples not to be flashy about their faith, unlike the people who fasted and made sure to look miserable, or the alms-givers who literally trumpeted about their gifts, or the people who offered long and loud prayers on street corners. Instead he instructed them pray privately, fast discreetly, and give secretly. Ostentatious faith gathers the reward of attention, but not a heavenly reward.

It’s once we leave the seclusion of the spiritual forest that we learn whether we’ve spent our time there wisely learning to live and spread the gospel, or simply trying to persuade God to notice us. Flamboyant demonstrations of faith move the spotlight off of Christ and onto us. The evidence of a heart transformed by Christ is in how we love people, regardless of whether anyone ever acknowledges or even knows we’ve loved them. Is it possible to spread a gospel containing the idea the last are first and the first are last if we always seem to be going for gold in the piety Olympics?

When Elisha dispatched a young prophet to tell Jehu in private that God had anointed him to depose King Joram and become the new king of Israel, Jehu played it down to his fellow commanders. He dismissed it by saying, “You know how those prophet types are!” but his colleagues forced a confession out of him. Though he died about 800 years before Christ was born, Jehu understood the power of spiritual humility.

In her song These Old Bones, Dolly Parton sings about a woman with a prophet-like gift for seeing the truth. The woman says, “But unless somebody just plain out and asked me, well, I just figured there ain’t no point goin’ around actin’ like you know everything, just ’cause you might.” Humble authenticity, not an overwhelming display, is the key to winning people over. Though our witness is certainly part of our evangelistic toolkit, the moral of our story is not “Christ saved me,” but “Christ’s sacrifice was for everyone.”

Comfort: You don’t have anything to prove to anyone.

Challenge: So stop trying.

Prayer: Lord where there is despair, let me sow hope. Amen.

Discussion: Where and how do you like to pray?

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!

War and Peas

pea-soup-2786118_1920

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 65; 147:1-11, 2 Kings 6:1-23, 1 Corinthians 5:9-6:11, Matthew 5:38-48


The Arameans and the Israelites were frequently at war. Because the prophet Elisha seemed to always be one step ahead of the king of Aram, the king sent an army of Arameans to surround the city of Dothan, where Elishah was dwelling. As the army approached, Elishah prayed the Lord would strike them blind, and they were blinded. Then Elisha tricked them into believing he would lead them to the man they sought, but instead led them back to Samaria and the king of the Israelites. The Lord opened the army’s eyes and they realized the tables had turned and they were surrounded in the heart of enemy territory. The king would have been happy to kill the Arameans, but instead Elishah directed the king to unleash the full fury of … soup and salad.

That’s right, Elisha had the king invite the Arameans to a feast, and then release them to return home. Afterward “the bands from Aram stopped raiding Israel’s territories.”

Could this be the sort of thing Jesus was thinking of when he told his disciples, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?” In Luke’s gospel, it’s even expanded to doing good to them and lending to them without expecting a return. When’s the last time you lent something to an enemy?

Whether our enemies are personal, political, or global, one sure way to keep them enemies is to keep treating them as enemies. Elishah’s example, and Jesus’s words, are also echoed in Proverbs and other scriptures: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.” Humanizing our enemies leaves them vulnerable to humanizing us in return, and that’s probably the last thing they want. Yet it’s the first step toward loving them.

Enmity may be forced on us by circumstances beyond our control, but how we treat our enemies is up to us. Whether you’re more motivated by burning coals or cooling tensions, loving our enemies is the path to eliminating them.

Comfort: You don’t have to return hate for hate.

Challenge: Invite an enemy to dinner.

Prayer: O divine master grant that I may not so much seek to be loved as to love. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been shown kindness or love by someone you considered an enemy? Did it change you?

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

Fair or Foul

20170909_165833-01

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 54; 146, 2 Kings 5:19-27, 1 Corinthians 5:1-8, Matthew 5:27-37


Do you ever second-guess God?

Gehazi, the servant of the prophet Elishah, was not happy when Elijah accepted no gifts or payment for curing Naaman of leprosy.  “My master has let that Aramean Naaman off too lightly by not accepting from him what he offered. As the LORD lives, I will run after him and get something out of him.” Gehazi followed Naaman and pretended his master had asked for a tenant of silver and two sets of clothes to give to visiting prophets. A grateful Naaman threw in an extra talent and two servants. Gehazi hid away his loot, but Elishah knew what had happened. The displeased prophet declared Gehazi and his descendants would carry forever the leprosy that had afflicted Naaman.

We can become disgruntled when we think someone has gotten off too lightly. When success comes to someone who hasn’t paid the same dues we have, when punishment for wrongdoing is not as severe as we’d like, or when it feels like someone has “jumped line” and gotten something we “deserved” more, we may resent them, disparage them, or even try to sabotage them. Like Gehazi, we don’t always like the way our master shows mercy, and also like Gehazi we often think it’s our job to even the score when God has dropped the ball. Fair is fair, right?

Except Christ never teaches us to insist on fairness for ourselves, and certainly not to exact it at the expense of someone else. How God works in another person’s life is not the benchmark to which we should compare how God works in our lives. After all, some people have it worse than we do too, and we never seem to think fairness might involve moving downward toward those we believe have it worse instead of upward toward those we think have it better.

Mercy, by definition, is not fair. But if we claim to follow Christ, we must believe mercy is just – not only the mercy offered to us, but also the mercy offered to others, even mercy we would not ourselves bestow. When we accept that Christ has already redeemed us through the ultimate act of mercy, it becomes something we seek more to share than to acquire.

Comfort: You have been offered the ultimate mercy.

Challenge: When in doubt, ask.

Prayer: O divine master grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console. Amen.

Discussion: How do you react to being treated unfairly?

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!