The Nitty Gritty

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Exodus 33:1-23, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12, Matthew 5:17-20


In many ways, our culture teaches us to win at all costs. From underhanded but effective political tactics to reality television featuring treacherous alliances and double-crosses, we can easily find ourselves celebrating victory more than integrity. For Paul it was not so: he trusted the integrity of his message was itself enough to bring people to Christ. Yet even the church can succumb to a little bait and switch, exaggerating joys and minimizing challenges to get people in the doors.

When we try to make ourselves seem better than we are, ironically we undermine the Good News. “Sunday Best” doesn’t refer only to our attire – we bring our best attitudes, best behavior, and best versions of our lives. We often assume that everyone else’s “best” presentation of their lives is the whole truth when in reality they may be struggling as badly or worse than we are. Together we perpetuate the myth that Christians must be eternally cheerful and optimistic. The danger in all this window dressing is the subtle message that Jesus Club is meant for those who have it together, or who can get it together. Not only do we miss opportunities to support one another, we intimidate others from trying to join the body. Eventually the false front crumbles under the weight of our collective repression, and the world sees us as hypocrites.

What a relief it would be to share the gospel as Paul did! He admitted to being exhausted, mistreated, and quarrelsome. He bore his sufferings and flaws as a testament to Christ’s presence in his life. His message spoke to broken people who needed to know Christ … because he admitted he was broken and needed Christ. And not simply past-tense broken, but presently broken and constantly being saved. That friend undergoing an ugly divorce just might be more interested in hearing about how Jesus is with you as you battle depression than about the Jesus who blessed the congregation with the best bake sale turnout ever. When we stop showing people the Jesus we think they want to see, and show them the real Jesus in the trenches with us, the message is more than enough.

Comfort: God already knows your true self, so there’s no sense in hiding it from anyone else.

Challenge: Share your authentic self with your church family or faith community. In what ways does it help you, and in what ways does it help them?

Prayer: God of truth, I present my authentic self to you, knowing you are the answer to all my brokenness, and ask you to use it for your glory. Amen.

Discussion: In what ways does being honest about your life help you, and in what ways does it help others?

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Wall of Sound

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 92; 149, Ezekiel 3:4-17, Hebrews 5:7-14, Luke 9:37-50


Have you ever left a discussion or disagreement and felt it was more like two parallel monologues? One where you talked over instead of with each other? Today’s social and political climate seems to have moved us past conversation, past persuasion, past argument, and right into word avalanches meant to bury anyone who disagrees with us. Sometimes it really does seem like we might not be speaking the same language From dog-whistles (coded language meant to signal and incite people within our social tribe against another one) on the right to virtue signaling (speaking more to reinforce moral superiority among our peers than to facilitate conversation) on the left, we speak primarily to hear ourselves talk and have our views reflected and amplified back to us. Language becomes a barrier instead of a bridge.

Before sending the prophet Ezekiel to warn the people of Israel, God basically told him, “I’m sending you to people who should understand exactly what you are saying. Not people speaking a different language, but people from your own tribe. Guess what? They’re going to ignore you because they have hard and stubborn hearts.”

Hard and stubborn hearts cut both ways. They render us effectively deaf to those we don’t want to hear – even when they speak important truths. And when we are speaking, our own hard and stubborn hearts use words to pummel, punish, and shame … and when has anyone responded favorably to that?

When we speak from a grace-filled place, our words will be easy for people to hear. Of course whether they choose to listen is beyond our control, but we have a choice to make: create an impenetrable wall of sound or create an opportunity to harmonize? If we are hurt, angry, or scared the wall option is attractive, and feels good … for a while. But sealed away we will simply fester in the pain and fear. Harmony – reconciliation – requires us to speak plainly and honestly, and to listen the same way.

Communication is more than words: it requires intent, effort, vulnerability, and trust. Let’s try asking ourselves: “What would Jesus say?”

Comfort: New information changes our understanding; truth remains the same.

Challenge: Question your assumptions about other people’s words.

Prayer: Lord, may I seek more to understand than to be understood. Amen.

Discussion: What triggers you to stop listening to someone?

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Trust, But Verify

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 148, Daniel 6:1-15, 2 John 1-13, Luke 5:12-26


A dedicated employee – or more specifically an overly-dedicated employee – can be a red flag to fraud investigators. That accounts payable manager who never takes vacation and works nights and weekends to make sure checks are getting cut may be doing those things so no one has a chance to notice the details. Such activity can go on for years until a change in pattern – such as a forced vacation – exposes the truth.

Former con-man and current FBI consultant Frank Abagnale Jr., whose story inspired the movie Catch Me If You Can and television show White Collar, pulled off many of his cons by presenting people what they expected or wanted to see. We expect someone in a pilot’s uniform (one of Abagnale’s many impersonations) to be a pilot. We don’t expect a long-time, dedicated employee to be a thief. Even if we are naturally skeptical, if we aren’t regularly practicing or studying deception, we probably aren’t skilled at anticipating it.

The Persian King Darius wasn’t anticipating deception from his appointed presidents and satraps (governors), but they were jealous of Daniel’s distinguished and reputable service. They trapped Daniel by flattering the king and convincing him to forbid, upon pain of being devoured by lions, that any of his subjects pray to any god or deity but Darius for the next thirty days. The conspirators knew Daniel would keep praying to God, so they reported him to Darius, who was reluctant but bound by his own law.

When Jesus sent his disciples out to spread the gospel, he advised them to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” It doesn’t take much wisdom to be skeptical of people we don’t like or agree with, but it takes some to determine at what level we should place our bar for “too good to be true.” Let’s avoid the trap Darius and Daniel fell into by not letting people or organizations exploit our ego, faith, or desire, perhaps by keeping in mind the Russian proverb: “trust, but verify.” We must love people, but that love is only blind when we close our eyes.

Comfort: You are allowed – even morally obligated – to think for yourself.

Challenge: No matter how much you respect someone, don’t trust them more than your conscience or your God.

Prayer: Loving God, teach me to find the balance between love and wisdom. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever fallen for a con because someone said what you wanted to hear?

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God Will Wait

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, Deuteronomy 6:16-25, Hebrews 2:1-10, John 1:19-28


In church we learn to praise and worship our God. We thank God for the good things in our lives, and ask for his strength during the bad times. We admire people whose faith remains rock-solid  during times of crisis, and aspire to have that kind of faith ourselves. Expressing negative emotions about God, not matter how true, seems out of place in most Christian settings.

So let’s thank him for one more thing: the psalmists! They were not afraid to rail at God when things got tough. The author of Psalm 42 declares: “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’” This psalmist is not afraid to ask: “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?” And these were not private episodes behind locked doors where the other faithful could not see and judge: they were public declarations recorded for the ages. If psalms of lamentation made it into the Bible, maybe it’s all right to express such feelings ourselves, even in public.

God is not a a fair weather friend who turns away when his feelings are hurt. During Rosh Hashanah, faithful Jews make atonement for their failings, but part of the tradition also involves calling God to account for the state of the world. The very name Israel means “wrestling with God.” We are not required to be always happy or even satisfied with God. It might be impossible, since we are built to be in a relationship with God, and all deep relationships at some point experience conflict.

An argument does not end a real relationship. Handled properly, it is a chance for learning and growth – though when we argue with God it is almost certainly we are the ones who need to grow. The psalmist closes by telling his soul: “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” If at this or any moment you are angry with God, it’s not the end of the relationship. God will wait.

Comfort: God’s grace will always outlast your anger, sadness, or fear.

Challenge: When you are angry with God, be honest about it; God already knows.

Prayer: Thank you God for the loving patience you show me always. Amen.

Discussion: Are you comfortable expressing anger at God to yourself? To others?

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