Generosity and Grace

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Today’s readings (click to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 67; 150, Genesis 13:2-18, Galatians 2:1-10, Mark 7:31-37


When Jesus healed people, he didn’t treat just their physical ailments; he also acknowledged them in a way that restored the dignity they had been denied. Charity and mercy should not be top-down experiences where the more fortunate look pitiably upon the less fortunate. They are more like the closing of a circuit through which grace flows and connects us all in the Spirit.

It’s easy to squeeze the grace out of our generosity. We insist on knowing who is worthy of it. We decide what is best for people without getting to know them. If it gets uncomfortable, we distance ourselves socially and emotionally from the people we are helping. Sometimes we dismiss the efforts of people who take a different approach than we do. Our focus can be too much on how charity makes us feel, rather than on the need we are meeting.

How Jesus healed a man of deafness and a speech impediment (a common combination, since it is difficult to mimic what we can’t hear) is a wonderful model for works we do in Christ’s name. First, he didn’t try to determine worth or blame, but accepted a person who came to him in faith. Next, instead of making a public show of his kindness, he took the man aside, thereby giving him a choice of whether to tell his own story. Then Jesus literally got his hands dirty and put them on the man in an intimate way, because sometimes love has to be messy. All the while Jesus was prayerful, but confident that God would guide him. He comprehensively addressed both the root of the problem (the man’s deafness) and the symptoms (his speech impediment). Finally, after word of his generosity spread, Jesus humbly gave the glory to God.

Grace-filled generosity does not insist on its own way, but responds to the needs of others. Unlike enabling, it empowers recipients to make their own decisions about what to do next. Once someone’s ability to hear (or eat or sleep warmly) is restored, they are free to speak the good news as they will.

Comfort: Sometimes we offer assistance, sometimes we receive it, and at all times we are worthy of dignity.

Challenge: Do some volunteer work that allows you to interact with the recipients of the work. Try to see them not as people who need something you have, but as people who are equally in need of God’s gifts as you are.

Prayer: Gracious and generous God, I will do my best to give as you would have me do, not as my fears and doubts would. Amen.

Discussion: When you give someone a gift, what expectations accompany it?

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

Dignity

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 67; 150, Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14, Acts 16:6-15, Luke 10:1-12,17-20


But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile,
and pray to the LORD on its behalf,
for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
– Jeremiah, 29:7

You can’t attend church or Sunday school for very long without hearing about how Jesus told us to pray for our enemies. On the other hand, you don’t have to experience the world for too long before realizing Christians in practice do not necessarily prioritize praying for them over defeating, humiliating, or killing them. Whether it’s our rival in the neighborhood association or a dangerous, despotic regime rattling its sabers, wishing them well does not tend to be our go-to response. Rather, we go through some serious ethical and moral contortions to justify treating them like we want to. And it almost never occurs to us that our own defeat might be the better outcome in the long term.

Yet centuries before Jesus, God was telling the people of Israel through the prophet Jeremiah to pray for Babylon, the empire which had defeated and exiled them. Praying wasn’t just the kind, sacrificial thing to do: the welfare of the two nations was interdependent. How the people of Israel responded to their captors would be instrumental in the eventual welfare of both.

What’s in our own best interest … isn’t always in our own best interest. The Gospel isn’t specific about how we are to pray for our enemies, so naturally we resort to praying for things like their conversion, or at the very least that they see the world more like we do. But what if we prayed for the things we want for ourselves? That their children do not know hunger. That their citizens do not live in fear. That peace reigns among them. What if we prayed – or better yet wanted – these things for them regardless of whether they never came around to our point of view or even wanted these things for us? What if we worked toward it?

If this sounds like passive acceptance, it’s very different. Enmity relies on us dehumanizing each other. If an enemy can claim we have no regard for his life, he is excused from having regard for ours. Refusing to deny the dignity of personhood of each of God’s children is how we retain our own. The first shall be last is more than a Christian motto; it’s how we save each other.

Comfort: Your dignity is yours to cherish or abandon.

Challenge: Be careful how you speak about your enemies, for God loves them, too.

Prayer: I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety. (Psalm 4:8)

Discussion: Do you think loving our enemies really accomplishes anything?

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

The Competition

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, 1 Samuel 19:1-18 (19-24), Acts 12:1-17, Mark 2:1-12


We are a competitive species. In business, politics, love, art, sports, entertainment – you name it! – we  love to rank and rate ourselves. Whether we want to have the number one sales in our region, achieve first chair in the cello section, or win the Super Bowl, our competition helps us thrive by showing us what is possible and inspiring us to do better.

Of course competition has its uglier side. When winning becomes more important than succeeding, we can be lured into underhanded tactics and unhealthy obsessions. If our self worth depends on being the best, it will be impossible to maintain. We can’t experience our present joy if on the way up all we see is someone in front of us, or if we once we get to the top we obsess over the person gaining on us.

Saul had what we might call an extremely unhealthy sense of competition. David’s great successes in winning both military victories and the hearts of the king’s family settled in the darker corners of Saul’s heart. The king began to see David less as an ally and more as a threat. His plots against David launched a vicious cycle as each backfired and the boy grew even more beloved. David’s achievements all brought glory and love to the house of Saul, but Saul only saw an opponent.

They say to be nice to people we meet on the way up, because we’ll meet them again on the way down. As Saul spiraled out of control and pursued David to kill him, he ran into a group of prophets and involuntarily began to prophesy with them. This recollects an almost identical incident when he was first called to be king. The earlier encounter raised his stature, and the later thwarted his purpose.

Competition is only half a coin. The other side is cooperation. Whatever we do, we do it not for our own glory but for God’s. Ultimately we are all on the same team, running the same race. If we win, it’s time to go back and help others cross the line.


Additional Reading:
Read more about Psalm 42 in God Will Wait and Deep Calls to Deep.
For additional readings from today’s passage from Mark, see Raise the Roof and Forgiveness First.
For more thoughts on today’s passage from Acts, see Timing is Everything.

Comfort: God wants you to be the best you, not the best everything.

Challenge: Make a list of things you wish you were better at. Meditate on whether being better at them also helps you serve God better.

Prayer: I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long (Psalm 146:2)

Discussion: Do you think of yourself as competitive? Why or why not?

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!

Extras: Read all about them!

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, 1 Samuel 18:5-16 (17-27a) 27b-30, Acts 11:19-30, Mark 1:29-45


Shortly after Jesus recruited his first four disciples, they all stopped at the house of Simon (whom Jesus would later rename Peter). Simon’s mother-in-law was sick in bed, so Jesus healed her. When her fever passed, the Gospel of Mark tells us, she began serving them.

Who doesn’t appear in this story? Simon’s wife, that’s who. The presence of a mother-in-law tells us she existed, but Mark makes no mention of her. Nor do any of the other gospels. Was she busy caring for her mother? Was she the tiniest bit annoyed her mother was expected to jump from her sickbed right into hostess duties? In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul mentions how she attended him in his ministry, yet he does not mention her name.

What must it have been like for her when her husband came home and said he’d quit his job to follow a revolutionary? That bombshell must have been unsettling at best. Given the station of women in the first century, her fate was sealed when her husband made this decision for their family.

No one’s journey unfolds in a vacuum. For good or ill, our decisions have repercussions for our loved ones. Our sacrifices become their sacrifices . While each of us is the star of his or her own life, there is no such thing as a supporting player: everyone is equally loved by God.

Simon’s wife had a name. And hopes for her future. And as full and rich an interior life as anyone. As we grow in our faith story, some characters will stand out, but most won’t. It’s how we treat the “background” characters that reveals our character. Do we think of them as mere functionaries, filling a role but without inherent value? Or are we looking for Christ among them, open to hearing their tales? There’s a rule of thumb that says how someone in a restaurant treats the servers is a better indicator of character than how they treat their friends. If in God’s kingdom the last are first, perhaps the extras have the real leading roles.


Additional Reading:
For additional readings from today’s passage from Mark, see Choose Your Own Adventure and Celebrity Gossip.
For more thoughts on today’s passage from Acts, see Lemonade.

Comfort: No life is too small to matter to God.

Challenge: Make a point of being respectful people whose business involves serving you, such as wait staff, tradespeople, etc. We are called to serve them also.

Prayer: Let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, so that those who love your name may exult in you. (Psalm 5:11)

Discussion: Have you ever felt dismissed? How did you handle it?

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

Invitation: Cross Traffic

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About five years ago we moved to downtown South Bend. We moved into a “transitional” neighborhood, which is what realtors call it when they think you’ll be concerned a lot of the neighborhood is not as white and wealthy as you are. We love living downtown, especially being able to walk places. Walk past the same people enough times, and you start to recognize them. If they’ve asked you for money and you’ve obliged, they start to recognize you, too.

One day I was walking back from the library when two men I didn’t recognize ducked into an alley I was about to walk past. One of them stood lookout, which seemed suspicious to me. Still I nodded at him as I went by, and he nodded back. Then he said, “Hey, mister!” I turned around mostly because I didn’t want anything at this point happening behind my back. “Do you have any cash to spare? My buddy is looking for food in the dumpster. I don’t want food from the dumpster.” I looked down the alley, and his buddy sure enough had one leg over the edge into the bin. I’ve been told before that giving cash just “enables” people (as though there are no drug addicts with well-paying jobs), but somebody could have a needle hanging from his tied-off arm and I wouldn’t want him to eat from a dumpster. I had $3 on me, so I gave it to him. He called to his companion that they could buy real food.

Some people who read this will think I made a bad call. They will think these guys could have gone to a food pantry or a homeless center. They may say these guys need to learn from the consequences of whatever decision brought them to this sorry state.

But I’ve learned something else from living downtown.

Our house is on a fairly busy street. Several less busy streets intersect it at two-way stops. Each one of these signs has a warning: “Cross Traffic Does Not Stop.” At least once a day, somebody ignores the warning and flies into the intersection. When they’re lucky we hear the screeching tires. When they’re unlucky we hear the sickening crunch and shatter. So far, thank God, no one has been so unlucky that we’ve heard the ambulance take them away.

My point is that the people driving on our street are following all the rules. They have no idea that life is about to plow into them at an intersection. The rules didn’t protect them. Following the rules is no guarantee of your safety – be it vehicular, physical, or financial. No one starts their day hoping to get into a crash. No one starts their life planning to eat from a dumpster either, but life can force us through some pretty nasty intersections. And sometimes it can bless us with an intersection that lets us help someone else.

We can sit in judgment of whether someone belongs at our table, or deserves to be at any table, but we’re all one bad intersection away from lost dignity.

Jesus said he came for the sick, not the well. If the only people we invite to the table are the people we think deserve it, we’re not ministering to the same people Jesus was. Turning people away from the communion table is like sending them to find dinner among the garbage. Sometimes you can’t make a good decision until you are relieved of the pain of hunger – be it physical or spiritual.

We all hunger for love and dignity. Christ offers it to us in bread and wine. Let’s share it generously.

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