Keepin’ It Real


Today’s readings:
Psalms 65; 147:1-11, Isaiah 49:1-12, Galatians 2:11-21, Mark 6:13-29

Do you know anyone who doesn’t tolerate your nonsense? Most of us know at least one person – maybe a friend, a co-worker, or a rival – who won’t let us get away with anything. For Peter, the rock upon whom Jesus built his church, that person was the apostle Paul. (Before Paul it was Jesus, but those are other scriptures…)

Peter, Paul, and James the brother of Jesus were the leaders of the early church. All of them had different ideas about how to spread and live out the gospel, so while they were brothers in Christ, they were also caught up in a little game of power politics.

When Paul visited Peter (called Cephas in Aramaic), he found him socializing and eating with gentiles. Many Jewish Christians – including James! – would have found this behavior intolerable. After word came that James, who was not yet convinced anyone but Jews could be Christians, was going to visit, Peter and his followers quickly resumed their Jewish customs and rituals so as not to give James any political ammunition to use against them. Paul, who was very invested in spreading the Gospel to the gentiles, didn’t hesitate to call Peter out on his hypocrisy by saying: “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

We all need a friend (or frenemy?) like Paul to keep it real with us. A good friend knows when to offer a shoulder to cry on, and when to tell us the hard truth no one else will. In the workplace, a yes-man may be good for stroking the ego, but strong servant-leaders surround themselves with people who aren’t afraid to respectfully speak their minds when needed. Across the conference table or over a beer, the truth may sting a little (or a lot), but it’s often an inoculation against future mistakes.

Find that friend. Be that friend. The friend who shines light on the darkness not to expose or humiliate, but to clarify and disinfect. Christ was that kind of friend (and of course infinitely more), and as “little Christs” we can be too.

Comfort: You can be honest with your friends.

Challenge: Your friends can be honest with you.

Prayer: Thank you God for good friends, and please help me to be a friend like Christ. Amen.

Discussion: What’s a hard truth you had to hear from a friend?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 65; 147:1-11, Ecclesiastes 3:1-15,Galatians 2:11-21, Matthew 14:1-12

Is there anyone among us who hasn’t at least once held their tongue or behaved, if not contrary, not quite in alignment with their beliefs to keep the peace? Maybe we didn’t want to ruin Thanksgiving dinner by responding to inappropriate comments from our racist cousin. Maybe we didn’t want to alienate a boss and agreed to a decision we knew was unethical. Maybe we grabbed a cigarette behind the elementary school with friends. Young or old, in large ways and small, peer pressure impacts all of us throughout our lives.

Though they had little else in common, Peter and Herod both found occasion to sacrifice their principles on the altar of appeasement.

In the years after Christ’s death, church leadership was up for grabs. Peter may have been Jesus’s rock, but many disciples considered James, the brother of Jesus, a more natural successor.  In his letter to the Galatians, Paul describes a confrontation with Peter, who “lived like a Gentile” and was not overly concerned with observing Jewish laws until the arrival of some representatives from James (Paul calls them the “circumcision faction”). Suddenly Peter put up a good Jewish front in an attempt to please James and preserve unity in the fragile young church. Paul did not feel the same need for deference – since it bowed to the exclusion of Gentiles from the faith – and accused Peter of betraying the spirit of Christ’s teaching.

King Herod didn’t make good decisions. Contrary to Jewish custom, he divorced his first wife to marry his sister-in-law. John the Baptist publicly spoke against this arrangement. At a drunken party, Herod foolishly promised his step-daughter anything she wanted. At her mother’s urging she asked for the head of John the Baptist. Herod didn’t want to kill John and feared the consequences, but he was more afraid of losing face with his guests.

Giving in or going with the flow may feel easier in the moment, but it doesn’t sit well with our consciences later. In some cases it backfires and delivers trouble on a silver platter. Even with the best intentions, we must be careful how we compromise. Turning the other cheek is not an excuse for being two faced.

Comfort: You don’t have to make everyone happy.

Challenge: When you are torn between speaking your mind and keeping the peace, ask yourself what will be sacrificed if you say or do nothing.

Prayer: Loving God, guide me at all times in the balance of being faithful to you and loving toward your children. Amen.

Discussion: Is there a situation where you regret not sticking to your principles because you didn’t want to cause trouble?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 130; 148, Joel 2:28-3:8, James 1:16-27, Luke 16:1-9

Self-portraits used to involve some effort and maybe a little skill, and lot of both to take a good one. Digital cameras removed the time and expense of film processing, and the front-facing phone camera unleashed a torrent of tourists reducing the splendor of the Grand Canyon to a background for a selfie. Armed with the delete button and a battalion of photo retouching apps, we can take shot after shot and adjust them to craft just the right image to present to the world. Staged spontaneity.

James had strong opinions about appearance versus reality:

If any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing.

Some people think the Book of James pushes a theology of acts over grace. For James they are inseparable because acts are the evidence that Christ dwells within us. We can talk about our faith all day long, but talk is shallow as a mirror, and creates a similar illusion of depth. When our hearts are truly committed to Christ, our actions follow, and we can’t help living out that commitment. It’s the difference between taking dozens of pictures to capture the perfect moment for public consumption, and actually living the countless imperfect moments that make a life.

Prayers and songs and scriptures are important – they are our Christian family portraits. Revisiting them should do more than remind us where we came from; it should inspire us to carry on the family legacy of doing peace and justice – “inspire” in the sense of “breathe life into” our words of faith. If we don’t direct that breath toward the real world where Christ calls us to cares for the widows and orphans, the alien and the outcast, friends and enemies, all we really do is fog the mirror.

Comfort: A heart transformed by Christ results in a transformed life.

Challenge: Seriously look at how you spend your time, and ask yourself if it reflect the faith you want to have.

Prayer: Thank you Lord for lives resurrected in Christ. Amen.

Discussion: What areas of your life need less talk and more action?

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!

Taming the Tongue


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 108; 150, Hosea 1:1-2:1, James 3:1-13, Matthew 13:44-52

Do our thoughts steer our words, or do our words steer our thoughts?

The Letter of James stresses the importance of minding the words we use. Words can express our thoughts, but they can also influence our attitudes. One example is how negative or positive “self-talk” reinforces our perception of ourselves and our environment. Counting our blessings is not just a cliché, it’s a healthy habit. What if, instead of calling the person who cuts us off in traffic a @#$% so-and-so, we reminded ourselves out loud: “Child of God.” Certainly not as cathartic, but might it change our thinking about that person and even ourselves? When we are mindful, we can train our brains to respond more compassionately to ourselves and others.

Some people use this passage to condemn profanity. While there are good reasons to avoid profanity (to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut in Hocus Pocus, profanity gives people an excuse not to listen to you), this scripture is more concerned with the impact words have on the community. It teaches “the tongue is a fire” which can kindle an inferno of conflict. Everyone has witnessed the damage that gossip, rumor, and innuendo inflict on a community. James describes the tongue as a rudder that can guide large ships through dangerous winds. Shoot-from-the-hip types may be popular for seeming “authentic,” but their ships often run aground. Our words must be honest, but they should also be loving and measured for mercy. Because this skill is rare, James says few are called to be teachers.

James asks how the same mouth can utter both blessings and curses, when it is impossible for a spring to spout both fresh and salt water. No matter how hard we try not to be salty, he knows our tongues can never be fully tamed, yet urges us to try. Thanking God daily – hourly if necessary – for the ability to use our tongues in service to Christ will help us do just that. Sometimes the most healing words are the most humble. Let us not presume to speak for Christ, but pray he speaks through us.

Comfort: We can control our tongue; it does not have to control us.

Challenge: For a day(or a week if you’re ambitious), trying listening for the Spirit and praying before you speak.

Prayer: God of strength, help me control my words and bend my heart to Your service. Amen.

Discussion: We’ve all heard “Stick and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Do you believe this is true?

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!

Quick To Listen, Slow To Speak


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 67; 150, Esther 3:1-4:3, James 1:19-27, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Fire and brimstone. Hellfire and damnation. Pulpit pounding and Bible thumping. These (mostly) unfair representations of the Christian church persist for a reason. As with any group, angry voices are generally the loudest voices, and the loudest voices are the ones people hear and remember. We can blame the media for neglecting our daily efforts to feed the hungry, while focusing attention on headline-grabbing events where rabid protesters chant “God hates f(ill-in-the-blank)s” but we also have to acknowledge Christianity’s self-inflicted reputational wounds.

James tells us: “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” He also says “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” Quick to listen. Slow to speak. Bridled tongues. Basically the opposite of the behaviors our culture reinforces.

Practicing our religion does not mean getting angry when others don’t feel compelled to support or observe it with us. The Gospel doesn’t sound like good news when our message is effectively: “The freedom and joy I find in Christ are so great that I will socially, politically, and legislatively force you to comply with and enjoy it.” Anger is a bully, and we can’t bully someone into knowing Christ’s love. We can’t (and shouldn’t) even bully all Christians into believing exactly the same things.

What we can do is stand firm in love, however we understand that. It is absolutely possible to hold fast to our convictions without attacking those who challenge us. Tone matters: to many people, it may say more about us than our actual words do. Listening to our opponents and enemies isn’t the same as endorsing them. It may even open a door for us to face some unpleasant truths about ourselves.

When we stand firm, let us tilt our ears to listen. When we shout for justice, let us shout from atop a mountain of love. When we reveal sin, let us blanket it in the hope of reconciliation. Good news delivered in an angry voice is merely noise.

(For further thoughts on today’s reading from Matthew 6, see Keep It In The Closet.)

Comfort: Anger is exhausting; you can let it go.

Challenge: This week make an effort to hear what people are saying without trying to formulate a response while you listen.

Prayer: Loving God, teach me when to speak and when to remain silent. Amen.

Discussion: What angers you so much you can’t hold your tongue?

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!

Invitation: Prince of Peace, King of the Road


My grandparents were generous people. They didn’t have a lot, especially when they were a younger couple, but any family members or friends present at meal-time were fed. Actually it didn’t have to be meal-time: if you showed up, they offered you food. Somehow Grandma could transform half a pound of ground beef and a can of tomatoes into a meal for a dozen people gathered in their tiny four-room house.

The village where they lived had a nearby rail yard, so it was not infrequent for hobos to drop by asking for food. Today “hobo”can have an offensive connotation, but in the first half of the 20th century hobo culture thrived. Grampa would  tell me stories about how Grandma cooked up breakfast for them, and shared stories and conversation.

Because hobos were a community, they liked to help each other out. Often they would draw discreet symbols on fenceposts or the like to let each other know what they could expect from the owners of the home. One of the earliest symbols was a plus sign or cross (+). This indicated the people in the home were friendly and would be willing to feed you. Over the years these symbols evolved. The cross eventually came to mean: “these people will feed you, but you’ll have to listen to some bible-thumping first … and they might not get to the feeding.” Another sign like a small table (∏) gradually replaced the cross as a symbol for a generous home.

I was almost forty years old when I first heard the term “table theology.” It describes a type of worship that doesn’t focus as much on the crucifixion of Christ as his efforts to bring us together in loving community. Table theology doesn’t exclude the importance of crucifixion – the communion meal at the center of the table symbolizes Christ’s death! – but it promotes his message we are to love one another.

In secular society, the symbol of the cross has similarly evolved. Polls consistently show non-Christians no longer associate the faith and its most famous symbol with radical love and self-sacrifice, but with judgment and exclusion. Sadly that’s often true. Some churches are more concerned with who can’t come to the table (or enter the door, or lead the choir, or preach the sermon) than they are with sharing Christ’s unconditional love. James 2:16 tell us: “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” Being welcome to the table is not a reward, because none of us perfectly deserves it; welcome is a default position because we are all wandering children of God who are hungry, even when we don’t know what for. Sharing this sacred meal opens an ongoing, sacred conversation among a person, a community, and our God. Come in from the cold. Have your fill of the Bread of Life. Tell your friends.

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