Thud!

20161205_154950-01.jpeg

Today’s readings:
Psalms 50; 147:1-11, Isaiah 6:1-13, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-12, John 7:53-8:11


“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

So Jesus said to a group of scribes and Pharisees ready to stone a woman caught in the act of adultery. Before saying it, he bent to write in the dirt with his finger. One tradition says he was writing a list of the secret sins of her accusers. Whatever he wrote, one by one the crowd members dropped their stones and walked away. When all were gone, he sent the woman away without condemning her, but advising her to sin no more.

We probably prefer to identify with the woman in need of mercy, but we also all potentially have a rock in our hand ready to hurl. There’s an adage that what we dislike about others is a reflection of what we dislike about ourselves. We clench that private guilt or shame until its weight becomes so unbearable that we are compelled to fling it at others if only to find some relief from the burden.

We think of the woman as the one who finds forgiveness, but what if those stones dropped because the crowd realized that if this woman could be forgiven, they could too?  What if they no longer felt the need to hurt someone else to soothe their own feelings of guilt?

Imagine the sound of all those stones dropping to the ground.

Thud! My own infidelity is forgiven. Thud! My anger at my brother is forgiven. Thud! My thieving ways are forgiven.

Thud! … Thud! … Thud! Thud! Thud! like the slow, building thunder of a cleansing storm.

The prophet Isaiah describes a vision in which a seraph (a type of angel) places a live coal on his lips. The seraph tells him: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” The phrase “live coal” might be better translated as “glowing stone.” By trusting God to deliver him through the pain, Isaiah found forgiveness. We must find the courage to name and face the glowing stone of our own sin before we can ask forgiveness, but afterward we can drop it to cool in the dirt. When we no longer burn, we no longer desire to burn others.

Comfort: If you ask and repent, you are forgiven.

Challenge: When you are angry with someone’s mistakes or transgressions, ask yourself what that says about you.

Prayer: Merciful God, thank you for the abundant forgiveness of your love. Amen.

Discussion: What flaw in yourself most irritates you when you see it in others?

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!

Predictably Unpredictable

whirly-gig-176076_1920

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 65; 147:1-11, Lamentations 2:8-15, 1 Corinthians 15:51-58, Matthew 12:1-14


The Book of Lamentations, written in response to the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonian empire, is a dark, heavy text offering little comfort of hope. Each of its five chapters is a complete poem unto itself. Though the author acknowledges God’s wrath was not unprovoked, he is bewildered by the Lord’s utter lack of mercy. He compares God to a foe of the people, and suggests the consequences far outweigh the nation’s sins.

In the second chapter of Lamentations, eyes fail from weeping, children faint in the streets from hunger, and the slain gather dusts in the streets. The author wants to know how the Lord could loose this devastation on the nation he loved as a bridegroom loves a bride. Yes we did some bad things, the author recognizes, but how could we have expected this? Oh … right … all those prophets.

When I worked with a church youth group of high schoolers, a young man approached me with a crisis of faith. He was devastated that God had not answered his prayers. His feared his girlfriend was pregnant despite all his (and one assumes her) prayers that it not be so. This was going to ruin their lives, he said. How could God let such a thing happen? It was a little surprising how in his mind he’d rationalized a situation where God’s character was the one in question.

But people speak often as if they had no part in contributing to the dire yet completely predictable situation in which they find themselves. Pregnancy doesn’t just happen. Neither do massive credit card debt, affairs, disciplinary action at school or work, drunken altercations, or committing oneself to strange gods. Yes these can be complex and all-too-human mistakes (well, most of them), but using that as an excuse just leaves us prone to making the same (or worse) ones again.

Israel couldn’t begin to repair her relationship with God until she owned up to her role in damaging it. Why risk the same sort of consequences, even if on a much smaller scale? Being honest about our own culpability both empowers us to initiate change and heal relationships with loved ones, ourselves, and God. We can lament if we must; it seems inevitable if not necessary. But then it’s time to do the hard and honest work. We like to avoid blame and guilt, but admitting to them is the first step in leaving them behind.

Comfort: God does not want us to live a life weighed down by guilt…

Challenge: … but we have to live with it before we can lose it.

Prayer: My Lord and creator, nothing about me is hidden from you. Help me to be transparent and honest with myself as well. Amen.

Discussion: How do you react to feeling guilty?

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!

Guilt-Free

1475458044004.jpg

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Hosea 5:8-6:6, 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, Matthew 14:1-12


Guilt makes us behave in strange ways. Take Herod, for example: as Jesus and his ministry became more prominent, Herod became convinced Jesus was really John the Baptist resurrected with supernatural powers. Earlier Herod had executed John (who had embarrassed the family by publicly criticizing a marriage scandal), but he didn’t really want to. He actually liked listening to John preach, but his wife (whom he’d taken from his brother) and her daughter forced his hand. Guilt and embarrassment about his marriage forced Herod into a rash decision to execute John, and the guilt of the execution made him paranoid about the world. Like many a guilty party, he was looking over his shoulder waiting for the shadow of his misdeeds to overtake him.

Guilt urges us to overcompensate, sometimes by becoming falsely generous and sometimes by attempting to turn the tables and project our wrongdoings onto the people who remind us of it. Politicians and preachers who rail about conservative family values and then get caught doing the very things they condemned aren’t just hypocritical, they are suffering the destructive side effects of guilt. Very often spouses who cheat handle their guilt by buying their partners extravagant gifts, making accusations against them to deflect attention from their own wrongdoing, or avoiding them. It’s the rare individual whose behavior remains unaffected by feelings of guilt, and those effects are corrosive and unhealthy.

Fortunately Christians know a healthy alternative to guilt: repentance. Repentance is not the same as penance (good deeds to make up for the bad) or mere remorse; when we repent, we turn in a different – and better! – spiritual direction. We may not be able to avoid the consequences of our past actions, but we no longer repeat or dwell in them. Where guilt keeps us chained to shame, repentance severs those bonds and frees us to move on. Our past, once a minefield of failings waiting to detonate in our present, no longer threatens our peace of mind.

John the Baptist called the world to repentance. We answer that call by accepting the grace God offers through Christ.

Comfort: If you suffer from guilt, there’s a better way.

Challenge: Take an inventory of your guilt. How could you trade it for repentance?

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for your mercies. May the compass of my heart always seek your true North. Amen.

Discussion: Do you think it’s possible to forgive yourself for something you think you might do again?

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!

Forgoing Forgiving

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 130; 148, Joshua 9:22-10:15, Romans 15:14-24, Matthew 27:1-10


“Woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born!” Jesus spoke these words about the impending betrayal by Judas. When someone says, “So-and-so will wish he’d never been born!” they are usually referring to a desire for revenge. Should we assume the same about Jesus? If we do, we are declaring Judas the one person Jesus refused to forgive. As our ultimate example of compassion and mercy, does it seem more likely Jesus spoke words of vengeance, or of profound sadness over his friend’s fate?

Other than the betrayal itself, perhaps Judas’ biggest mistake was seeking forgiveness from no one but the same religious leaders who funded his wicked purpose. Not knowing Jesus would rise in three days, he saw no opportunity to ask Jesus directly. Though he flirted with repentance, Judas ultimately decided he was beyond redemption, and set his sights on the hanging tree. In the most immediate possible sense, he was unable to know the forgiveness of Christ.

How do we imagine the Christ of the gospels would have responded if Judas had survived to ask forgiveness of him? We’ll never know, because Judas settled for the verdict of the chief priests. Sometimes when we do terrible things, our guilt convinces us we have committed the one unforgivable sin in all the world. We accept the verdict of our own religious leaders, families, or hearts. We decide we are beyond redemption, and follow a path validating that decision. We believe we are unworthy to even ask for redemption. We go through the motions of church and life, all the while feeling filthy and hollow. But what if we dared to ask Christ for forgiveness? More unthinkable, what if he forgave us? Then we might have no choice but to forgive ourselves.

What an overblown opinion of ourselves to say to Christ, “My sin is greater than your grace.” It is our understanding of mercy that is too small, never Christ’s. The only thing really standing between Christ and us… is us.

Comfort: It is never too late to experience God’s forgiveness.

Challenge: On one side of a sheet of paper, write down things you have trouble forgiving yourself for. On the other side write “God forgives me.” Burn the paper while offering a prayer of thanks.

Prayer: God of all Creation, thank you for your endless mercy. Amen.

Discussion: How difficult do you find it to forgive yourself?

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!

Take Time for Renewal

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, Joshua 3:14-4:7, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 26:1-16


Like all relationships, our relationship with Christ needs tending. We can become so focused on doing the work we feel Christ calls us to do, that we neglect the source of that call. Our periods of relationship-building may not always look productive to others, but in the long run they renew us for continued service. In today’s reading from Matthew, Judas chastises a woman for pouring an extravagant amount of expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet, and complains it could have been sold to feed the poor. Jesus tells Judas the poor will always be around, but he would only be with them a little longer. The woman’s action was a needed moment of preparation for both her and Jesus. Relentlessly monitoring each “unproductive” moment and “wasted” penny does not bring us closer to Christ, but it does bring us closer to burnout.

Isn’t a conscious effort at restoration and renewal – be it physical or spiritual – a form of gratitude to God? If we used a car only in the service of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, it would still need regular maintenance. Otherwise it would break down too soon and be good for nothing. Yet we are often willing to risk letting our own engines seize rather than take the time for self-care. Do we believe God wants us to drive ourselves non-stop only to be junked before our time? Of course not. Our physical, mental and spiritual health are gifts from God. Gratitude includes caring for them as they deserve.

The sad truth is, the poor (and the sick, and the imprisoned) always will be around, at least until the kingdom of God is fulfilled. The work is never ending, but our endurance isn’t. Even Jesus needed and sought periods of solitude and rest – why would we expect more of ourselves? The Pharisees accused Jesus of being a drunkard and a glutton. Yet we are often afraid of the criticism we might receive for saying “no” to a request for our time or talents. We answer only to God, and God knows we could use a break.

Comfort: You can rest without guilt.

Challenge: Look at your weekly and monthly schedules. Is there anything you could let go in order to find more time to rest in the presence of God?

Prayer: God of Renewal, thank you for the talents you have given me to serve your people, and the time you have given me to spend with you. Amen.

Discussion: Do you have trouble saying “No?” Why?

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!