Quantum Leap of Faith

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


Birthdays. Anniversaries. New Years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What is Love Actually?

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 90; 149, Isaiah 8:1-15, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-18, Luke 22:31-38


As the second week of advent draws to a close, let’s reflect on its traditional theme of love. We throw the word “love” around a lot, and muddy its meaning in the process. A single word describes a range of feelings, actions and attitudes. “I love pizza.” “I love God.” “I love Blazing Saddles.” “I love making love.” More sophisticated users of language may choose different words to better express nuance, but for us common folk, love is love is love.

If you reflect on different types of love – romantic, divine, fraternal, charitable – what questions does it raise for you? Over time, how have your own experiences and studies changed your working definition of love? Do you experience love primarily as a feeling, an attitude, an action, some combination of the three, or something else entirely?

If we actively engage the world, our understanding of love evolves endlessly. Take marriage, for example. The intensity of feeling of a new love can’t sustain twenty, forty, or sixty years of marriage; as time passes, the landscape of the relationship changes. Self-help books that teach us our relationship will flounder unless we hold onto or rekindle that early passion have it all wrong. Stubborn insistence that love must look and feel the same five, ten, or thirty years down the road is deadly to a marriage. Movies, television, and books tell us a relationship that loses its youthful character is somehow lacking, but the opposite is often true: just as mature people gain depth, gravity, and patience … so do mature relationships.

Our love for God and people must be allowed to follow a similar path if it is to mature. Sometimes we need to let go of what we think love is before we can reach that next level of depth. That can be scary, or feel like a loss, especially if the letting go is forced on us. At the close of this second week of Advent, can we commit to bravely exploring a deeper understanding of love over the coming year? We might find God in the most surprising places!

Comfort: Love matures as you do.

Challenge: Try using words other than “love” – such as like, adore, admire, or enjoy – in your daily conversations.

Prayer: God of love, teach me to love. Amen.

Discussion: How has your understanding of love – romantic or otherwise – changed over time?

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Spiritual Mentors

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 147:12-20, Proverbs 21:30—22:6, 1 Timothy 4:1-16, Matthew 13:24-30


Have you ever had a mentor – a person who is purposeful about guiding your development? Mentors come in different flavors. Many businesses offer mentoring programs because it helps them promote and retain good talent, as well as foster a sense of the importance of passing along knowledge and experience. Social programs for youth, such as Big Sisters or Big Brothers, offer mentor programs to young people who lack positive adult role models. Some mentors, particularly those in artistic communities, may act in a less official capacity but still impart wisdom and raise the bar for young performers and artists through collaborative efforts.

Good mentors don’t try to create younger versions of themselves, or have preconceived notions of who you should be. They coach and guide you to explore the best path for you, provide honest feedback, and get you to hold yourself accountable for your progress. They do more listening than speaking.

Have you ever had a spiritual mentor? Paul filled this role for his young protege Timothy. He offered Timothy advice and encouragement. Perhaps more importantly he trusted him to act independently, and treated mistakes as opportunities for learning rather than reasons for punishment. Our record of their relationship is through Paul’s surviving letters, which of course reveal only one side of the conversation. If he was like other successful mentors, Paul wasn’t pontificating because he liked the sound of his own voice (or of his scratching pen); he was responding to Timothy’s questions and concerns. An effective mentoring relationship depends very much on what contributions the student brings to the relationship; it is not a monologue by the mentor but a conversation fueled by the student’s questions, enthusiasm, and curiosity.

Mentors themselves benefit from being mentored. There’s always someone we can learn from. It’s worth taking the time to invest in these relationships. Wherever we are on our spiritual journey, someone has already been through it. Their guiding hand can help us to navigate familiar territory, thereby freeing us to progress further and faster. The ultimate responsibility of mentors is to coach their students enough not to need them.

You could use a mentor. You could be a mentor. You could do both. A simple conversation gets the ball rolling.

Comfort: Seeking guidance is not a sign of weakness, but of maturity.

Challenge: When you are challenged in your faith or spiritual growth, don’t depend on only yourself to get through it.

Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for the wisdom of the collected Body of Christ. Teach me to listen to it, teach me to add to it. Amen.

Discussion: A mentor is generally not a direct superior or a parent. What are the advantages of picking someone who isn’t “in charge” of you?

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Sower or Seed?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 145, Leviticus 25:35-55, Colossians 1:9-14, Matthew 13:1-16


In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus tells the story of a man who spread seeds on the ground. Some fell on the path, and the birds ate it. Some fell on rocky ground and sprouted, but withered in the heat and blew away with the wind because its roots had nowhere to cling. Some fell among thorns which choked it out. Some fell on good soil and yielded an abundant harvest. The seed is the message of Christ, and the different circumstances represent how well his message is received. Where do you see yourself in this parable?

Are you the earth? If that is the role you identify with, what are you doing (or have you done) to prepare yourself for the message? What are you doing to ensure the message can take root in you and produce abundance? We are each responsible for preparing the soil of our hearts.

Are you the seed? If so, do you feel like you have any control over where you land? When you find yourself in an environment which is inhospitable for your growth, can you go somewhere more suitable? Jesus follows up the parable with an explanation of what circumstances each type of soil represents, so we would do well to avoid them.

Are you the sower? If you are, why do you think you are so indiscriminate  – careless even – about where you sow your seeds? Why aren’t you concentrating on only the best soil so that the harvest is maximized? The sower is not unconcerned with the results (otherwise why sow at all?), but he does not feel responsible for the fate of every handful he scatters.

The beauty of parables is that they really can be all things to all people. At different stages of our lives – maybe even different hours of the day – we could be earth, seed, or sower. Who is to say we might not even be one of the birds snatching the seed up before it takes root? Let us prepare our hearts well, place ourselves wisely, and share the Word with wild, faithful abandon.

Comfort: Wherever you are in life, Christ has a word for you.

Challenge: Resolve to “bloom where you are planted.”

Prayer: Loving God, you spread seeds of faith throughout the world. May they take firm root in us, that we may in turn share spread that faith to others. Amen.

Discussion: With what element(s) of today’s parable do you most identify? What does it feel like to place yourself in the different roles?

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Unburdened

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 57; 145, Jeremiah 44:1-14, 1 Corinthians 15:30-41, Matthew 11:16-24


Jesus told the people of Galilee (and – through Matthew’s gospel – all of us):

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

“Burden” was a vague term, perhaps intentionally so. Many things can burden us. Guilt. Family obligations. Persecution. Financial troubles. Illness. Worry. The list is endless, yet Jesus offered comfort and reassurance to all who felt burdened for whatever reason. How relieved the people must have been to hear from someone who did not wish to add to their already heavy burdens, but to actually relieve them.

Later on, Jesus had very different words for his disciples:

 If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Well that doesn’t sound like much of a relief, now does it?

Yet these messages are not contradictory. Jesus would have us learn whatever we need to draw closer to him. In the beginning, that may mean learning what burdens we can, should, and must lay at his feet. If the contents of our lives are so overwhelming that they crowd out Jesus, it’s time to let go of them. And if we can’t let go – for example, a caregiver of a sick child – we can spiritually reposition ourselves to let Christ help lighten the load.

We aren’t ready to pick up the cross on day one of discipleship. Before we can handle that weight, we have to be fully settled into Christ’s yoke – to genuinely trust in the strength of his “gentle and humble heart.” It may take a while, but then we can follow free of even the burden of trying to save our own lives.

Whether we need reassurance that it is safe to draw near him, or a push to follow him to the end, Christ’s words speak to us where we are.

Comfort: Wherever you are in your spiritual growth, Jesus is speaking to you.

Challenge: However close we feel to Christ, we can still grow closer.

Prayer: My Lord, I seek to grow ever closer to you. Amen.

Discussion: Which words of Jesus do you find comforting … and which do you find challenging?

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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!


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Revival Arrival

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 22; 148, Jeremiah 23:1-8, Romans 8:28-39, John 6:52-59


The Bible story reveals a consistent cycle: God sets something good in motion … people take it for granted and screw it up. Adam and Eve start in a perfect garden, but can’t resist the one thing forbidden to them. God frees the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, but they succumb to fear and doubt so wander for forty years before reaching the promised land. They reach the promised land and establish a great kingdom, then fall into corruption and exile. (Sometimes it’s a cycle within a cycle, with individuals rather than whole peoples experiencing glory and courting catastrophe). Restored to their homeland, they once again fall into corruption. Jesus sacrifices himself to save the world, and Christians repeat the cycle, in large ways and small, throughout the history of the church. Rinse and repeat.

Fortunately, God has more revival to offer than we have faults to deplete it.

One of the greatest dangers to a faith community is complacency. We can stray from the path God intends for us by sticking too closely to the path we’ve always trodden. Every tradition starts out as something new; it only becomes old when we grow satisfied with simply observing it, rather than asking why we do it. For example tithing, in addition to being a sacrifice to the Lord, was a means for the temple to take care of widows, orphans, and disabled people. Jewish people faithfully kept tithing long after temple officials started keeping most of the offerings. According to Jeremiah and other prophets, the Lord wasn’t pleased.

What traditions and habits that may need revisiting do we and our communities observe? During these cycles, God generally seems to be concerned with the welfare of the lost and neglected, and harsh to the comfortable and complacent. Do we have a beautiful building with a hollow soul? Does our congregation grow more homogeneous or more diverse? Is it in the business of condemnation or service?

The winds of revival are always on the horizon. When they arrive, may our necks not be so stiff that they snap like reeds in a gust.

Comfort: God is constant…

Challenge: …but our understanding of God does change and grow.

Prayer: Gracious Lord, teach me to appreciate the creation constantly unfolding from your love. Amen.

Discussion: What current attitudes and beliefs do you think are going to end up on the “wrong side of history?”

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If Paul could do it…

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 57; 145, Job 4:1, 5:1-11, 17-21, 26-27, Acts 9:19b-31, John 6:52-59


Lasting change is difficult to make. After we’ve found the motivation to make a positive change, we must struggle with a world inclined to keep us as we were. If we leave behind bad habits, friends who shared those habits may try to drag us back to our old ways for their own purposes. If we’ve repeatedly promised change only to let down our friends and family, they may view new declarations of change with understandable suspicion. Real change can’t depend on how other people perceive us, but on how we perceive ourselves.

When Paul did a spiritual 180 and started preaching in Jesus’ name, people who knew him were amazed at his radical change. Those in Jerusalem who did not want to accept his change plotted to kill him. On the other hand, when he joined the disciples “they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.” Many of them had been evading him for some time, and only the testimony of Barnabas on Paul’s behalf swayed them.

Paul’s old associates were invested in keeping him the same, and the people he hoped to make his new associates weren’t ready to accept him. Despite these attitudes, Paul persevered because he was dedicated to God above all others. To a lesser degree, we may experience the same thing when we make a change. If we decide to give up gossip, for example, the friends we used to gossip with will undoubtedly feel snubbed when we decline to participate. Given our history, other people will find it difficult to trust us. The same would be true of addictions, lying, spitefulness, or any host of vices. A truly penitent heart will persevere in change whether other people accept the change or not; our relationship with God will sustain us.

We can’t change any mind but our own. When we know we need to make a positive change, we must be prepared to endure and overcome resistance, and not let that resistance discourage us. God doesn’t promise us ease, but to be with us through everything.

Comfort: When we change our hearts, God knows and accepts.

Challenge: Be supportive to someone who is trying to change.

Prayer: God of truth, in you I am made new every day. Thank you for second and third chances. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever made a change people chose not to accept or support?

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