Mercy in the Middle

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 102; 27; 147:12-20, Habakuk 3:1-10 (11-15) 16-18, Philippians 3:12-21, John 17:1-8


One of singer Amy Grant’s most powerful songs is “Ask Me,” the true story of a young girl who experiences sexual abuse in her home. The arc of the song is hopeful, but not naive. Ms. Grant follows in the footsteps of psalmists and prophets struggling to understand where God could be in the middle of terrible trials. Lent is the perfect time for us to ask these questions, to mourn the state of the world. This season reminds us why we need the savior to enter God’s creation again and again.

Psalm 102 uses striking images to illustrate its author’s misery. He eats ash and drinks tears. His bones burn like a furnace. His heart withers like grass. His enemies taunt him until he is helpless as a little bird on a rooftop. Psalm 27 is the plea of someone whose enemies devour his flesh and exhale violence. The prophet Habakuk has visions of war and famine. Yet in the midst of these terrible events, all these writers cry out to the Lord. Habakuk says despite all the horrors around him, “I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.”

Faith does not require us to pretend we are okay with everything in our lives. When parents or children fall seriously ill, when civilians are bombed, when we lose a job, when we struggle with depression, when natural disasters destroy communities … God does not require us to meekly accept it. We can rant and rail to God about injustice and pain because – as Ms. Grant sings – “He’s in the middle of [our] pain, in the middle of [our] shame.”

Sometimes life stinks, and God knows it. Psalmists, prophets, and terrified little girls survive not by pretending God makes everything OK, but by finding the peace that comes through suffering authentically in God’s presence. Christ is God’s incarnate presence in a grieving world. He doesn’t come to meet uncomplaining cheerleaders, but to share in our suffering and redeem it through his own. Embrace the brokenness of yourself and the world, for that is where peace begins.

Comfort: God is always with you, even when your suffering makes him seem far away.

Challenge: Throughout Lent, look for opportunities to let someone share their struggles with you. Don’t try to fix it – just be present.

Prayer: Gracious and merciful God, thank you for suffering with me through my struggles. Please help me to lean on your mercies when my difficulties seem overwhelming. As I bare my soul to you, share your peace with me so others may see it also. Amen.

Discussion: This reflection is on specific readings, but chances are no matter when you read this you are aware of some unfolding tragedy. How are you responding to it?

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Ego to Ashes

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Today’s readings (click below to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Amos 5:6-15, Hebrews 12:1-14, Reading Luke 18:9-14


Ash Wednesday is the day Christians around the world begin the annual Lenten pilgrimage. Most of us will travel more spiritually than physically, and hopefully in a direction taking us closer to God in Christ. Our modes of transportation vary: prayer, fasting, giving something up, taking something extra on – the possibilities are limitless. And like physical pilgrims, we may find we need to carefully select which belongings will travel well to a destination we may not know much about.

Today’s parable from Luke highlights one possession it might be better to leave behind: ego. When we read about the Pharisee who thanks God he is not the tax collector praying nearby, we aren’t surprised Jesus says the tax collector (who is humbly praying for mercy) is more justified before God. Most of us – even religious leaders – identify more with the character of the tax collector than the Pharisee. But should we? Is it truth or ego that tells us we are appropriately humble?

The moment we thank God we are not the Pharisee (or one of the people at that church), we are guilty of his sin: pride and judgment. In Jesus’ time, the message of beloved sinners was revolutionary. People needed to hear it. Twenty centuries on, as a faith community familiar with Jesus’s teachings, we need to be careful not to wear the tax collector’s humility as the latest fashion of outward righteousness. Letting go of the idea that we have the right ideas about God can be scary, because it erodes our comfortable, Christian identity.

As we prepare for our Lenten journey, let’s unpack the thick cloak of ego to make room for humble uncertainty. This type of uncertainty isn’t so much doubt as an intentional loosening of our preconceived notions of God and self, so we can be open to growth. If we cling too tightly to who we are, we are closed to who God would have us become.

Sometimes we are the Pharisee. Sometimes we are the tax collector. Most often we are a mix of both. God will help us find the balance.

Comfort: Our Lenten journey to the cross may be frightening, but the promise of resurrection is certain.

Challenge: What person or group do you possibly feel superior to? Pray for the humility to love them without judgment.

Prayer: Merciful God, give me a heart humble and open enough to know your glory.

Discussion: How are you observing Lent this year?

Systems Check

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, Proverbs 30:1-4, 24-33, Philippians 3:1-11, John 18:28-38


When the Jewish leaders arrested Jesus and took him to the Roman governor Pilate, “they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover.” Let that sink in for a moment… They found ritual uncleanliness unacceptable, but framing a prophet because he might actually be speaking on behalf of God was fine. Jesus was right to compare them to tombs whitewashed on the outside and rotten on the inside.

Under Roman occupation, Jewish leaders had no authority to execute anyone but they didn’t let this technicality discourage them. By saying Jesus claimed to be a king, they made him a rival of Caesar and therefore backed Pilate into a political corner. Jesus was advocating throwing off the Roman yoke for the Kingdom of God, but that didn’t suit their purpose so they twisted the truth to fabricate evidence against him. The tactic could be ripped from today’s headlines: self-righteous group misrepresents the facts to serve some narrowly defined greater good. Pilate asked Jesus “What is truth?” and we’ve been fudging the answer ever since.

Who are the villains in this piece? Should we point to scheming Pharisees, oppressive Romans, treacherous Judas, or fair-weather crowds? The truth is, everyone was guilty. The systems in place allowed corrupt leaders to act with impunity, communities to shift blame upward, and individuals to convince themselves they had no choice when they didn’t want to consider real but difficult options. In other words, business as usual.

In what Christ-betraying systems do we knowingly or unknowingly participate? How do we help perpetuate poverty, discrimination, violence, human trafficking, and other evils? If we knew the child sold into slavery to provide us cheap sneakers was Christ, would our cries for justice be louder and our choices different? We need to examine these questions when we make purchases, accept employment, and wield – or fail to wield – privilege and influence. Choosing God’s justice often requires choosing inconvenience, discomfort, and expense.  In God’s system, where the last are first, what does it mean to look out for number one? It means working toward justice for countless others.

Comfort: Every step you take toward justice is a step toward Christ.

Challenge: Lent starts tomorrow. This year give up apathy.

Prayer: Forgive me, Lord, for not wanting to know what I do.

Discussion: Have you ever made different choices after learning “how the sausage was made?”

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Fail to Succeed

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Today’s readings (click to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, Proverbs 27:1-6, 10-12, Philippians 2:1-13, John 18:15-18, 25-27


Bodybuilders know the secret to success is failure. A muscle grows bigger and stronger only when it is worked until it fails. They reach for more than they know they can do, because they know the reward will be a stronger body. Every successful workout teaches them the limit of their strength.

Most of us are not experts at judging our own limits, physical or spiritual. When pressed we overestimate or underestimate our abilities. Many people who have gone through a crisis with a parent or child have said: “I didn’t know I could do it until I had to!”

Peter didn’t understand his own limits. Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus predicted Peter would deny him three times. Of course Peter insisted he would never deny Jesus, but once the rubber hit the road Peter’s fear was greater than his faith. We can shake our heads at Peter, and insist just as hard as he did that we would not have been so faithless, but the truth is we don’t know. We have the advantage of knowing how it all turns out, but for Peter and the other disciples, Jesus’s death brought terror and confusion.

And yet … Jesus also predicted Peter would be the rock upon which he built his church. Jesus didn’t pick someone with a perfect faith, because that someone doesn’t exist. Later when Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection, he asked Peter three times: “Do you love me?” For each failure, Jesus offered an opportunity for redemption.

Attempting only what we know is possible is not faith, it is fear. To grow our faith, we must be willing to test its limits – to trust God to carry us through things we don’t think we can do. When things don’t work out, remember Peter.

God knows we will fail. He can use each of those failures to make us better: more humble, more compassionate, less judgmental. We may need some recovery time – bodybuilders typically wait 24-48 hours before working the same muscles again – but after we recover we know our faith is stronger than it was before.

Comfort: Failure is always an option. Through God, so is redemption.

Challenge: Pick something you’ve been afraid to try, and trust God to see you through it. Even if you fail at it, God will be with you to dust you off.

Prayer: Thank you, O Lord, for the challenges which strengthen me. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been stronger than you thought you could be? If so, what or whom do you credit?

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Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

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Today’s readings (click to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 139; 150, Malachi 4:1-6, 2 Corinthians 3:7-18, Luke 9:18-27


Is the concept of an all-knowing God intimidating or comforting? The author of Psalm 139 finds great comfort in the idea that God has been and always will be with him, from conception through death. He portrays God’s constant presence not as one of judgment, but one of personal investment. As God’s carefully wrought works of art, “fearfully and wonderfully made,” we are each of us His precious creation.

Artists frequently compare their own creations to children; how could we be less to God? Like all good parents, He does not coerce our love through threats, nor does He abandon us when we make mistakes. God has our best interests at heart; Jesus assures us no father, when his child asks for a fish, would hand him a snake. Good parents can be strict, but always with an eye toward guiding and challenging children to be their best selves.

Psalm 139 provides beautiful images of the relationship God intends to have with us: guide, artist, parent, creator. Jesus used similar metaphors to describe our relationship to God, and they can help us explore His unknowable yet always loving nature. Whether we are living in the light or the darkness, God desires an intimate connection with each of His children.

Focusing on  God’s presence in our lives, even when we don’t necessarily “feel” it, inspires us to rise to the opportunity of being our best selves. Without reducing God’s role in our lives merely to a supportive buddy or life coach, we can contemplate God’s presence as we devise plans, make decisions, and take actions. Pausing to reflect on how God might view an action before we commit to it can help us transcend fleeting impulses which may not serve us well. If such reflection nags our conscience or sense of guilt, they may be signposts pointing us to a better – if sometimes more difficult – path. God does not promote shame but does encourage us to have self-control. God’s presence is not a fist knocking us down, but a hand lifting us up. Let’s grab it and be the wonderful creations God intended.

Comfort: God is with us always, waiting to lift us ever higher.

Challenge: Before going to bed each night, reflect on which of the day’s actions glorified God, and which you might have done differently if you’d been keeping God in mind. Thank God for loving you enough to help you do better tomorrow.

Prayer: Thank you God for always calling me toward the right direction.

Discussion: Can you imagine yourself as a work of art? If not, why not? If so, what kind of art would you be?

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Barnacle-Free Faith

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 149, Genesis 29:1-20, Romans 14:1-23, John 8:47-59


One characteristic of an effective movement, whether religious or secular, is an ability to stay focused. Unfortunately, the older and larger a movement grows, the more likely it is to lose focus. We need look only as far as the church to see a primary example. Early Christians were focused around the idea that Jesus was the savior, and through him all sin was forgiven. They had de facto leaders but no real bureaucracy, and were more focused on freedom than restriction.

Is that what the church looks like today? Can we imagine Peter poring over investment policy revisions, or Paul reading the latest theories on why you should have one third more seats than you do members? These activities aren’t wrong in and of themselves, but if we’re not careful we may start thinking and behaving as if the point of church is to perpetuate church, rather than to serve God.

One of Paul’s purposes in writing to the Roman (and other) churches was to encourage them to stick to the basics of the faith. Like present-day churches, the simple ideas and practices that bound them as a community began to accumulate individual and cultural restrictions. Like barnacles on a ship – sometimes known as fouling organisms – these additions adversely impacted the performance and structure of the church. Paul told the Romans they needed to scrape off “fouling” ideas.

Today’s church can be just as prone to fouling ideas. Most of the time we can recognize them because they separate us from each other or the world around us. Any time we decide someone who professes dedication to Christ is not a “real” Christian because their denomination, practices, or identity don’t fit our mold, we are probably victims of fouled faith. Rifts have developed over everything from whether coffee is allowed in the sanctuary to politically correct language in hymns to the proper order of a liturgy. As Christians, we are called to find ways to rise above such trivialities and unite rather than divide.

Paul adds a wrinkle though: we can’t just write off people with sincerely held belief in more rules than we believe as silly or misguided. In Paul’s example, the “strong” who believed no food was unclean didn’t need to make a show of eating certain foods to the “weak” who clung to prior practices. Relationship with Christ and God is central to faith and community, so causing someone to feel they were undermining that relationship was not “walking in love;” if someone believed something was unclean, it was indeed unclean to them. Your stumbling blocks and someone else’s may differ.

Of course, if it’s our belief-barnacle we will struggle to recognize it as such, and the older and bigger it is, the more difficult it will be to scrape off. Then there’s the danger that in our zeal to tear off the non-essentials we carelessly go too far and scrape away part of the hull; we don’t want to damage or discard what is necessary and true. And there’s the balance of community: learning to respect each other’s sincerely held beliefs and practices without imposing them on each other – and over time stripping away all that is not part of Christ.

Faith is not always simple, but let’s resist the temptation to complicate it unnecessarily. If we focus on winning souls instead of winning arguments, the barnacles on our faith fall away much more easily.

Comfort: Christ is the lens that focuses our faith.

Challenge: What barnacles have you accumulated? Scrape them off.

Prayer: God of Abundance, I will keep my eye on Christ. Amen

Discussion: If you’re not a sailor, barnacles may not mean much to you. What are some other metaphors for religious or spiritual “clutter?”

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Recycled

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, Genesis 27:30-45, Romans 12:9-21, John 8:21-32


When Esau discovered his brother Jacob had tricked their father into giving him the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau, he was overcome with rage. This “blessing” was not a religious one, but a method of passing on rights to the land and possessions of a patriarch to his heir. The lands, wealth, and armies that Esau was sure he would inherit instead would go to the younger brother who had plagued him all his life. Esau would get the leftovers and move to a foreign land. Jacob would continue the line that would lead from Abraham to Jesus.

History unfolds in unexpected, often unwelcome ways. We might expect Jesus would come from a long line of noble, respectable, gracious ancestors. While they included royalty and priests, his family tree was shaky from the roots up. Abraham lied and tried to do an end run around God’s plan for him, fathering the Ishmaelites in the process. Isaac, like his father Abraham, lied about his relationship to his wife in order to secure business arrangements. Jacob stole his brother’s inheritance and lived in hiding for years. His son Judah sold his own brother into slavery and impregnated a woman he thought was a prostitute. And on, and on, and on …

The history of Jesus’ ancestors isn’t just a little suspect – it’s out-and-out tawdry.  From one perspective it could undermine his authority and credibility; people are judged by their families all the time. But from another point of view, it could be considered encouraging or even liberating. If God could work through families like these, imagine the potential in boring old us? So many of us waste that potential because we are waiting to feel worthy. We talk about what we could or will do if and when we were better, more organized, more stable, healthier, or “holier” people. We look at others who do the things we wish we could do and assume they are smarter, better connected, and generally “have it together.” After considering where Jesus came from … still think so?

God meets us where we are, warts and all, and offers to lead us beyond where we hoped to be. When we spend more time trusting God and less time doubting that we could be useful to God, no part of us is wasted, no talent unused. Our creator pulls us from the trash heap and turns us into something beautiful. No one is ever “ready” for that.

Comfort: God doesn’t throw anyone away.

Challenge: For one week, up your recycling game. Is it something you can stick with?

Prayer: Thank you God for loving me beyond my comprehension. Amen.

Discussion: What’s something you’ve found a new use for that someone else might have thrown away?

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Sleight of Hand

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, Genesis 27:1-29, Romans 12:1-8, John 8:12-20


Sometimes the Bible reads like a soap opera. In Genesis 27, Rebekah convinces her son Jacob to wear goat skin on his neck and hands to fool his blind father into thinking he is his older, hairier twin brother Esau. He does this to secure his father Isaac’s blessing, which will mean he inherits leadership of his clan. Isaac does indeed (and improbably) grant his blessing to the “wrong” son, in an apparently irrevocable act. When the real Esau demands things be made right, all Isaac has left to offer is a meager consolation prize of a blessing that basically promises Esau the things Jacob didn’t already get.

To our modern sensibilities, developed in a culture of upward mobility, it seems unfair that deception is rewarded thusly. In Jacob’s time, though, people couldn’t earn authority based on merit; authority was inherited or taken by force. If Jacob (or his mother on his behalf) wanted equal opportunity without resorting to outright violence, he had no other choices but to scheme his way to it.

Many cultures have a “trickster” figure: Loki in Norse mythology; Raven in Native American lore; Anansi in West African folk tales. Jacob is a similar figure who outwits his brother multiple times, and even outwrestles an angel physically and mentally. Trickster figures, despite having questionable ethics, often bring benefits to mankind despite the will of the gods. This is where Jacob differs: God had already chosen him to continue Isaac’s lineage, and the tricks seem to support that.

For the most part we want and expect people to play by the rules. Deception rubs us the wrong way and leads to chaos. But what if the rules are not the same for everyone (as they almost never are, especially the unspoken ones)? The Bible has many stories of oppressed people who use the methods available to them to overcome. Deception is not a virtuous act, but sometimes it takes a trickster to turn oppression around. Someone who, say, subverts Roman and Jewish expectations and leads us to eternal life by sacrificing his own. The difference between a hero and a villain often depends on who writes the history book.

Comfort: God’s will eventually plays out.

Challenge: It may not play out in ways we like.

Prayer: Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. Amen. (Psalm 16:1)

Discussion: “The ends justifies the means” is a sentiment which can cut both ways. Do you think questionable means are ever justified?

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A Stone’s Throw from Grace

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, Genesis 26:1-6, 12-33, Hebrews 13:17-25, John 7:53-8:11


You don’t have to be a Christian to recognize the quote, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” It’s the pivotal line from a story in John’s Gospel. In this story, the scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman who’d been caught in adultery. The prescribed Mosaic punishment was death by stoning, but the Pharisees – knowing that stoning wasn’t exactly Jesus’s style – asked him what should be done. They hoped to trap him into contradicting the law so they could bring charges against him. Jesus paused for a bit, wrote something on the ground, and then gave his famous answer. One by one her accusers slipped away until only Jesus was left. He refused to condemn her, saying only “Go and sin no more.”

The inclusion of this story in John’s Gospel is not without controversy. It doesn’t appear in the earliest manuscripts, and many editions of the Bible are sure to note this. It’s kind of ironic that such a questionable story became one of the most recognizable. Why does this story compel us?

Perhaps because – authentic or not – it embodies an idea that it seems we need to hear and learn over and over again. If our relationship with God is about pointing out what other people are doing wrong, instead of humbly examining our own hearts, we aren’t getting the message.

Do we as a faith community need to hear about the reality of sin and immorality? Absolutely. Do we as a faith community need to point to and single out and shame it everywhere we (think we) see it? Absolutely not.

Why is it so many non-Christians (and former Christians) see the faith as full of people ready to cast stones? Well … they’re not entirely wrong. The loudest messages shouted from beneath the Christian banner tend to be ones of condemnation. Now loudest doesn’t mean exclusive or truest or most frequent, but it does disproportionately influence what people perceive and remember.

Christ’s message isn’t one of condemnation; it is of love. We all know John 3:16 and wave it around a lot to point out who is “saved” and who isn’t, but for some reason we don’t spend nearly as much time on 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Condemnation cuts people off or turns them off, and neither wins anyone to Christ. But we like it. We struggle with (and succumb to) the same temptation as the Pharisees to twist scripture to justify punishing or imposing our will on others. Once Christianity became the dominant force of the Western world, we seemed to forget forcing the Good News on people is bad news.

Grace invites us in and asks us to leave the door open; religion is an excuse to shut people out. When Jesus tells us what is sinful, it’s not so we know when to punish or control other people; it’s so we know when we are creating a rift between ourselves and God. If other’s people sin does not affect us or exploit the innocent, it’s none of our business. In a culture where the Christian majority has learned to take offense at the idea of sharing public space with people who don’t share our faith or values (and we forget even within Christianity they are nuanced), it affects us far less than we like to think it does. Every one of us has enough planks in his or her eye to keep us too busy to worry about someone else’s speck.

We are forgiven. That is a thought that should be so humbling we can’t conceive of throwing stones. Instead, let us pass on the message of grace and love by being Christ’s open hands to the world.

Comfort: God’s love will deliver us from fear.

Challenge: Ask yourself what temptations you find hardest to resist, then ask what need is still not being met by giving in to them.

Prayer: In you O Lord I seek refuge and peace. Amen.

Discussion: What fears drive your behavior?

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From Fear to Faith

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, Genesis 25:19-34, Hebrews 13:1-16, John 7:37-52


Delayed gratification.

It’s not something that comes naturally to most of us. As a matter of fact, it’s often the opposite of our nature. We spend our lives in bodies that are convinced death lies around every corner. Because our bodies don’t know when food might be available again, they tell us to store energy by overeating now. Because they don’t know whether pain and discomfort will stop, they demand relief in the form of drinks and pills. Because they are desperate to reproduce they talk us into mistaking lust for love and connection.

Bodies can feel like temples to the gods of despair, where we sacrifice the future to survive the present.

Esau and Jacob were the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah. “When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents.” (Gen 25:27) One day Esau returned famished from the field, and demanded Jacob share his food. Jacob instead offered to sell it to his brother – in exchange for Esau’s birthright as the older son. Esau, caught up in his body’s hunger, agreed. “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” (v 34)

How often do we – like Esau – sell ourselves short to satisfy an immediate longing?

And yet … Christ’s promise of eternal life helps us to rise above the limitations of our mortal bodies. Perhaps part of being born again is reclaiming the birthright we have despised through sin. When we the hungry know the assurance of the bread of life and the living water, we are no longer driven by fear, but by love. Our bodies, gifts from God, become instruments of service rather than masters of need.

To become servants in the image of Christ, we have to learn to put the needs of others before our own desires – to take that which was once first to us and make it last. Our longings may still tempt us, but we can choose better when not gripped by fear. We can be cooperative instead of competitive. Our temptations can help us develop empathy for those who still fear, for we were once in their place and it was humble love, not force or intimidation or arrogance, that saved us.

Delaying gratification for the purpose of retaining our birthright will always be a struggle, but that struggle is where we can identify in some small way with Christ crucified. It is where we learn to be more than bodies and find the fulfillment of being part of The Body. It is where perfect love casts out fear “So we can say with confidence ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’” (Heb 13:6)

Comfort: God’s love will deliver us from fear.

Challenge: Ask yourself what temptations you find hardest to resist, then ask what need is still not being met by giving in to them.

Prayer: In you O Lord I seek refuge and peace. Amen.

Discussion: What fears drive your behavior?

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!