Thanks In Advance

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 12; 146, Isaiah 52:1-12, Galatians 4:12-20, Mark 8:1-10


From childhood we are taught to sprinkle conversations with a generous seasoning of “thank yous” until they become more of a reflex than a thoughtful response. But why do we say “Thank you?”

Usually we say it after we’ve received something, such as a gift or a compliment,  but the sentiment behind our thanks can vary in meaning. Maybe most of the time we are genuinely grateful for what we’ve received. Other times we are humbled. And then there are those times we feel unworthy of what we’ve been given. Like many phrases which seem simple and easy to interpret, “Thank you” can turn out to be quite complicated.

When Jesus asked the disciples to feed thousands of people with a few fish and loaves of bread (for the second time), he began the meal by giving thanks to God. This may seem little different than the grace said before a church pot luck, but there is one important difference: Jesus hadn’t received anything yet. When we say grace in advance of a meal, we know there is a meal waiting to be had. For what was Jesus thankful? Perhaps for the faith that God would provide.

Some people believe pre-emptively thanking God or the universe is a formula for actualizing your desires. Beginning from a place of thanks is simpler than that: it helps us acknowledge that what we have is enough – and when we have enough we find it easier to share with those who do not.

The origin of saying grace is tied to meals because long ago before eating (and before the FDA) people would pray the food would not literally kill them. What if we said a prayer of thanks before a wider range of activities? Thanking God for the time, money, resources, and love in our lives – in advance of the time we receive, need, or share them – can greatly improve our attitudes and outlook.

Let’s not reserve our thanksgiving until after we have received. Let’s give thanks in advance for whatever it is God may place in our lives, and we will be prepared to put those gifts to use in ways beyond imagining.

Comfort: Gratitude can change your life.

Challenge: Even on bad days, try to find one thing for which you can offer a prayer of thanks.

Prayer: Thank you for being a loving and generous God. I will trust in your abundance. Amen.

Discussion: What do you take for granted?

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Ordinary Blessings

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 108; 150, Job 38:1-11, 42:1-5, Revelation 19:4-16, John 1:29-34


Divine intervention. We are taught in Sunday School to believe it looks like great reward or great punishment defying the laws of nature – like the parting of the Red Sea or the walls crumbling around Jericho; like the resurrection of Lazarus or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the case of Job, divine intervention felt both like punishment and reward: God stripped everything he loved and valued from him, then restored his fortunes because he remained faithful. Behind the scenes, the motivations for divine intervention in Job’s life weren’t really about him at all.

We should call God’s involvement in the life of John the Baptist a blessing – after all, he had the privilege of preparing Israel for the arrival of Christ – but his reward for faithfulness was execution. When we hear examples like this, does it diminish our enthusiasm for a divine hands-on management style?

What if divine intervention wasn’t always quite so … obvious? It seems counter-intuitive that God would create a universe in need of constant tweaking, but might it be possible that interaction with God is built into the fabric of creation? That we go through each day touched by God in small ways we may or may not notice? Not that the Spirit is some cosmic personal assistant saving us a good parking space or sparing us from the same financial woes someone else is suffering (though there’s nothing wrong with expressing gratitude for these situations).  Every experience we have is an opportunity to connect with God, but we must choose to make that connection.

When we don’t get that parking space or pay raise, are we just as grateful? When we compare our lives to peers we consider more successful than ourselves (never a good idea, but inevitable), do we acknowledge the blessing of an ordinary life?

Maybe divine intervention doesn’t look like God altering the world for us, but God altering us for the world.

We can’t all be leaders and prophets. We can all be followers of Christ. Surrendering our lives to God makes us the very instruments of divine intervention. If we want to see God at work in the world, let’s look inside first.

Comfort: God is available to us always…

Challenge: … but insisting on our own way can make God seem distant.

Prayer: Holy God, thank you for being present in my life even when I don’t feel you. Amen.

Discussion: In what ways do you feel God has changed you to better serve the world?

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All Good Gifts

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Today’s readings (click to open in new window):
Psalms 96; 146, 2 Samuel 23:13-17b, 2 John 1:1-13, John 2:1-11

In the Gospel of John, Jesus performs his first miracle (John calls them “signs”) at a wedding in the town of Cana. At his mother’s urging,  he reluctantly turns water into wine because the wedding has run out. The chief steward of the reception, upon tasting the wine that was formerly water, tells the bridegroom: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” This tells us a lot about the nature of generosity and giving.

It tells us God’s gifts are top quality – always! When a prayer isn’t answered how we want or expect, or when God calls us to do something difficult or unpleasant, the problem is not with the gift. When we feel like asking “Is this really what you meant to give me, Lord?” the problem may lie in our perception. Not that every hardship is a gift in disguise; God certainly doesn’t give us cancer or domestic violence. But if we approach life as though the Spirit is nudging us toward wholeness, invaluable life lessons and spiritual riches abound. When someone gifts us with lessons – music, tennis, foreign language – the gift is only valuable after we have put the work in.

What about gifts we give? Do we hold back the good wine? While we can’t give beyond our means, we shouldn’t cheap out because we are giving to charity. We’ve all heard: “They should be grateful to get anything at all” and we’ve all seen 10 year old cans of cocktail onions on food drive collection tables. The point is not to judge the giving of others, but to be faithful about our own. We don’t know when someone is giving despite their own need, and we should be wise about stewarding our funds, but when we are giving in Christ’s name let’s keep in mind that in God’s eyes the recipients are no more or less deserving than we are. The good wine – or at least the best wine we can afford to share – is for everyone.

Comfort: God’s gifts to us are never lacking.

Challenge: For one week, set aside a food bank donation (in cash or kind) equivalent to your own lunches. At the end of the week, note whether the donation came out of your excess, or whether you had to scale back a little to give an equal amount. If your present circumstances don’t permit for donations, try splitting your leisure time evenly between your own activities and helping others.

Prayer: Lord, teach me to be generous, and to give with a loving heart. Amen.

Discussion: We can have complex feelings around gift-giving, especially when they feel obligatory, such as during the holidays. How do you feel about gift giving?

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

Growing Gratitude

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 116; 147:12-20, Nehemiah 1:1-11, Revelation 5:11-6:11, Matthew 13:18-23


For you have delivered my soul from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling.

I walk before the LORD
in the land of the living.

I kept my faith, even when I said,
“I am greatly afflicted”;

I said in my consternation,
“Everyone is a liar.”

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of gratitude in improving our attitude. From bestselling books, to inspirational speakers, to social media challenges, we encounter reminders to be grateful all over the place. The United States and other countries have set aside national holidays of thanksgiving dedicated specifically to the idea (if not always the practice) of gratitude.

But there is a subtle yet important difference between thanks and gratitude. Thanks is reaction; we offer it in response to something we’ve been given – things like presents, good health, food, service, and encouragement. Gratitude is a state of mind that exists beyond and between the gifts. We may become more acutely aware of it under certain conditions, but real gratitude comes from within us, not from what others have done for us.

The author of Psalm 116 was both thankful and grateful. His reasons for thanks are abundantly clear: the Lord has kept him from stumbling, dried his tears, and rescued him from death. His gratitude is apparent in different verses. Even during times of difficulty, the psalmist keeps his faith. He doesn’t have to deny his state of affliction or the misdeeds of liars to maintain gratitude, because it doesn’t require us to be thankful for our present circumstances. Gratitude sustains us when we feel like we have nothing at present to be thankful for.

Gratitude is not just a state of heart, but a practice. We can build emotional and spiritual resilience by being intentional about our practice. Daily reflection or journaling on why we are grateful can help us through those rougher patches. Expressing gratitude is an important component of our regular worship. In times of stress, a litany of gratitude can calm us. When life is overwhelmingly busy, focusing on gratitude can help us get our priorities straight.

Gratitude is a gift and a prayer which centers and grounds us. When we have to dig deep for it, we find a wellspring of the holy.

Comfort: Our God has done great things for us.

Challenge: Let us learn to be grateful even when things aren’t great.

Prayer: I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the LORD. (Psalm 116:17)

Discussion: What are you grateful for today?

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Say a little prayer for you.

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, 2 Samuel 12:15-31, Acts 20:1-16, Mark 9:30-41


Because David and Bathsheba’s child was conceived in treachery, murder, and ingratitude for all the Lord had given him, the Lord told David the child would not be permitted to live. For a week David fasted, wept, and pleaded. Afterward he returned to his normal routine. His servants, confused that he seemed less grief-stricken than before, asked what was going on.

He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me, and the child may live.’ But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”

That’s … practical. And there’s something to be said for being able to make peace with things the way they are. It’s also admirable that David took time to worship when his vigil ended; he wouldn’t have been the first or last person to reject God in disappointment.

But still. Where were his prayers when he was tempted to chase Bathsheba in the first place?

It’s not like David wasn’t a prayerful man – he’s credited with seventy-three of the psalms. However like many of us, he seemed to believe that when we want something, it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission. Have you ever had (or perhaps been) that friend or family member who asks for advice except for when they’ve already made up their mind to do the wrong thing? They (or we) frequently aren’t as hesitant to ask for help or sympathy cleaning up the inevitable mess.

Writer Anne LaMott characterizes her favorite prayers as “Help, Thanks, Wow.” It’s important not to think of them as three discrete prayers triggered by different events. Had David been consistently grateful and seeking God’s guidance, he might have been better prepared to handle the sight of Bathsheba’s beauty without succumbing to his lust.

It’s our everyday relationship with God that prepares us for life’s more extraordinary circumstances. If we turn our hearts over to God before the mess begins, we may avoid it entirely.


Additional Reading:
For thoughts on today’s reading from Acts, see The Ledge.
For thoughts on today’s passage from Mark, see Career Advice.

Comfort: We’re going to make mistakes, and God will see us through. 

Challenge: Let’s at least try to make them faithfully, though. If you don’t have a regular prayer routine, find one that works for you.

Prayer: O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (Psalm 63:1)

Discussion: By the end of today’s passage from Samuel, David and Bathsheba have moved on and had another child whom God loved. How do you think people who have done terrible things find the strength and love of God to bounce back from them?

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 Person My Blog Thinks I Am

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A week or so ago, the 600th daily devotional posted to Comfort and Challenge. Because we were camping with family, it was scheduled in advance and went live while I slept. A couple days ago I remembered I’d reached that milestone, with that same mixture of bewilderment and amusement I get when I pass my exit ramp because I’m singing along to the radio.

Putting up a celebratory graphic seemed less urgent than it had at 500 or 100 posts. I settled for being happy to have not yet faltered in this little project, and getting that much closer to number 735 at the end of this liturgical year.

But something seemed different. Reflecting on whether or not I should bother noting what’s really only another number made me realize that all this blogging has had an effect on me. Have you ever heard the JW Stephens quote, “Be the person your dog thinks you are?” Well somewhere along the line I’ve become invested in being the person my blog thinks I am.

All this writing about peacemaking, forgiveness, judgment, generosity, community, and hypocrisy is actually being read by a few people. Some I know personally, some I know via social media, and some I can’t say I know at all. But it matters to me whether they think I actually try to live out the values I write about. Not because I’m worried about their opinion of me (well, not primarily – I’m only human), but because I have foolishly been bold enough to imply my character has been improved by my faith. If that influence is all words and thoughts and bears no fruit, I’m not doing right by God – like a fig tree that won’t produce figs. That didn’t end well for the tree.

The changes have been subtle, but real. So what’s changed?

I’m more restrained on social media. I certainly have my political and social beliefs and like everyone else think they are obviously correct, but reconciling has become more important than convincing. If I feel I should contribute to the conversation, I’m more interested in telling you my story and asking about yours than preaching about what the right story should be. I won’t tell you why you can’t be a Christian and support Issue X or Candidate Z, but I’ll explain why I can’t. And I’ve also just become a lot less opinionated, at least in forums that are about spreading division.

I’m learning to forgive faster. Forgiveness as a process differs for everyone, but the rancor of the last election and its fallout really hit home. For the first time in memory, our family is not all on the same political page, and it feels personal (it wasn’t). It’s a stark example of how people with equally good intentions can come to radically different decisions. Let’s just say I wasn’t on the winning side, and it was really tempting to wrap myself in the comforting blanket of victimhood. But thinking about what I’d read and written over the first year of the blog didn’t allow for that. It didn’t allow for thinking I should push until other people budged. It only allowed for figuring out how to live in love.

I need a church. A few years ago I left the church I was attending and became part of a home church. That peacably ran its course a few months ago, and I’ve been without any formal Christian community since. What’s odd to me is all this delving into scripture has left me far less interested in selecting a community based on its creed or denominational theology but on how it lives the Gospel. My theology is decidedly progressive, but I’ve learned even progressive congregations can be protectionist and more about theory than practice. I’m not all that interested in formally joining a denomination or even signing on for membership in a congregation. But I’m not good at finding ways to spread the gospel and feed the hungry on my own, so I’m willing to make some theological concessions for a local community that guides me in clothing the naked and visiting the sick.

There’s more, but this is long enough. I am grateful to everyone who has read and/or commented, because that’s encouraged me to keep going. I am a better person because of you – because of God working through you. It’s said that writers ultimately write for themselves. Before I write, I try to remember to pray to find words that honor God and benefit readers. Though I hope it’s not the case, if the only reader I’m benefiting is myself, this is totally worth the effort.

Peace and thanks!


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!

Humble Beginnings

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 98; 146, Jeremiah 32:16-25, Romans 12:1-21, Luke 8:1-15


Have you ever tried negotiating with God? Something like: “Dear God, if you will [fill in the blank]… I promise to never/always [fill in another blank].” Are we able to keep such promises? In retrospect, we may realize we were foolish to make them in the first place. God knows just how weak we can be when it comes to holding up our end of a deal.

Jeremiah tells the story of how the Israelites lost the land God gave them, because they forgot God and lived sinfully . In their pride and selfishness, they forgot everything they had was a gift. How often do we hear about “self-made” athletes, entertainers, or politicians who achieve success, only to forget their humble beginnings? And how often do these stories end with a fall from grace when the successful lose perspective? How frequently have we pleaded with God to deliver us – only to insist on our own way once things improve? When times are good do we, like the Israelites, forget the God who provided for us and return to the old ways that caused us trouble in the first place? When our responsibilities are no longer convenient, do we neglect them to follow our desires?

In Romans, Paul warns us not to overestimate our own wisdom. Our successes come when we remember to be faithful stewards of our gifts, not when we take too much credit for them. When times are good, let’s give thanks for what we’ve been entrusted, and when times are bad let’s not rely solely on our own resources to get out of trouble. We learn from the Israelites that such attitudes can turn good situations to bad, and bad to worse. Our efforts count, but not for everything.

Promises do not convince God to act one way or another, and failing to meet promises – even with the best intentions – damages our character. Negotiating is a way of using our “wisdom” to manipulate God. Instead let’s seek God’s will in all circumstances, and live as if we’ve promised to make of ourselves a holy and living sacrifice.

Comfort: We have greater resources than our own thoughts.

Challenge: Meditate on promises you have kept… and broken.

Prayer:  Loving God, thank you for being constant when I am not. Amen.

Discussion: What do you take for granted?

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

Forgive and Don’t Forget

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 145, Jeremiah 32:1-15, Colossians 3:18-4:18, Luke 7:36-50


Paul was convinced that Christ’s return was a short-term proposition. As far as he was concerned, that was all the social upheaval that would be needed. In his letters to the Colossians and the Galatians, he declared that in Christ there was no distinction made between Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. Long-term political and social reform simply wasn’t part of the equation. So when he advises wives to be subject to their husbands and slaves to obey their masters, he isn’t so much advocating for the social ills of sexism and human trafficking (though there’s no plausible argument he was against them either) as he is commenting on the world as it is but won’t be much longer.

Importantly, he also counsels masters to be just and fair, husbands not to be harsh, and fathers not to provoke their children. No matter what circumstances we find ourselves in – fair or unfair, powerful or powerless – we should conduct ourselves in a manner that shows our trust and dignity lie in Christ. The work we do; the words we choose; the attitudes we display; no matter our station in life all of these can be conformed to the image of Christ. We won’t do it perfectly, but perfection is not the expectation.

Ironically, one of the best ways to do better is to remember when we have done worse. We don’t do this to feel guilty, but to feel gratitude. Luke tells the tale of a sinful woman who came to Jesus while he visited and dined with a Pharisee. She washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. When the Pharisee tried to warn Jesus what kind of woman she was, Jesus pointed out she had shown him many more kindnesses than the Pharisee had: “Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

Let’s remember what we have been forgiven. Every little detail. Then let’s return that gratitude and love by sharing it with all we meet.

Comfort: You are forgiven much.

Challenge: You are called to forgive.

Prayer:  Forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Amen.

Discussion: How do you typically show gratitude?

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

One year later…

Blogging – especially about faith – has been a humbling experience. Pretty quickly I learned that I’m not writing to instruct, but to learn. Each lesson I draw from scripture is one I need to internalize; sometimes I can, sometimes … not so much. Every  day I realize how far short I fall from being the person I think Jesus and God want me to be. 

But that’s a good thing. More than once I’ve paused before doing or saying something to think: “Be the person your blog thinks you are” and made a (hopefully) better choice. James warns us about the dangers of calling ourselves teachers, the struggle with hypocrisy. So I’m happy to be a flawed student sharing my notes and homework with you.

Today marks the one year anniversary of Comfort & Challenge. I haven’t missed a day, though some have squeaked in just under the midnight wire, and that surprises me. I have you to hank for that. Thoughtful, kind, and challenging reactions here and in the Facebook group help me feel like this is a conversation, and it would be rude to quit in the middle. Plus I am genuinely interested in what you have to say.

Because the blog is based on the daily lectionary, and the lectionary takes us through the bible in two years, we have reached the halfway point of Comfort and Challlenge, at least in its current format. I am excited for the downhill leg, and blessed to share it with readers who have been with me from the start and those who meet us along the road.

Thank you for reading, and God bless you.

Stay Hungry

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 147:12-20, Hosea 13:4-8, Acts 27:27-44, Luke 9:18-27


We complain when we’re cold, hungry, thirsty, tired, or in pain but no one ever complains: “I’m just too … satisfied.” Yet satisfaction – or perhaps more accurately self-satisfaction – led to the downfall of the nation of Israel.

Through the prophet Hosea, God shared these words with Israel: “When I fed them, they were satisfied; they were satisfied, and their heart was proud; therefore they forgot me.” In other words, God provided for them in their time of need. They were provided for so well, they started to take it for granted. Eventually, because they were without need, they forgot about God altogether.

It’s a common story, really. When we are in need or distress, we pray and demand to know: “why do I deserve this?” When God provides, and our bellies no longer ache from hunger or our hearts from sadness, it’s easy to forget where we started. We take it for granted. If part of God’s blessing required hard work from us, we may start to give ourselves a little more credit for our own success than is due – and judge others who haven’t made it as far. Sure, we say we know we owe everything to God, but do we really? When is the last time we had a well-stocked kitchen, a happy marriage, and a stretch of good health and asked: “Why do I deserve this?”

Maybe we should stay a little hungry. The spiritual discipline of fasting involves a physical hunger, an unavoidable pang we can use as a reminder to focus our attention toward God. Whether it reminds us of our own dependence, or of the needs of those who hunger not by choice, it teaches us humility and gratitude. Other disciplines – study, solitude, service, etc. – also lift us from a state of oblivious contentment and help us not to take God for granted.

Let’s sacrifice a meal, a lazy Saturday morning, or twenty dollars to a higher cause. It’s all right to feel a little deprived of the more worldly satisfaction they might have provided. That pang reminds us to focus on what’s important.

Comfort: Gratitude will improve your mood.

Challenge: Make time daily to thank God for what God has provided.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for all the  blessings in my life. All glory and honor is yours. Amen.

Discussion: What do you take for granted?

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!