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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Carpenter’s Son

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 93; 150, Leviticus 8:1-13, 30-36, Hebrews 12:1-14, Luke 4:16-30


How do you feel about high school reunions? Your answer probably depends on how much you enjoyed your high school experience. The older we get the less we are like our high school selves, but stepping into those locker-lined hallways and through those gymnasium doors shifts a part of our brain back into those teenage dynamics. Some part of us expects people to be like they were then, and they expect the same of us. When we know someone as a youth, we can have trouble seeing how they are different as adults. All of us are both victims and perpetrators of this phenomenon.

Jesus had the same problems. His ministry began with a big splash in Capernaum, and then he returned to his hometown of Nazareth. In Nazareth people wanted to see the signs he’d performed in Capernaum. Part of this might have been excitement over the hometown boy made good, but some of it was because they couldn’t imagine the son of Joseph the carpenter as the Messiah. Anticipating their doubt, Jesus told them: “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” After he got warmed up and started doing what prophets do – namely telling them what they needed to change – “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.” They drove him out of town and tried to push him off a cliff.

In the end, Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way” as though they weren’t there. Now there’s a lesson in maturity. Jesus did not surrender to the outdated expectations of people who couldn’t see him in the present. It can be tempting to lower ourselves to expectations (“I cheated because I got tired of you accusing me of it!”) and blame others. Jesus knew what he was about, and also knew Nazareth would hold him back. At one point even his own family called him crazy, but he just kept doing what needed to be done. What only he could do. Don’t settle for the expectations the world places on you; graduate into the person God has prepared you to be.

Comfort: Other people may not see you for who you are, but God does.

Challenge: If you are tempted to blame someone else for your failings, spend some time in prayer about it.

Prayer: Thank you, loving God, for allowing me to grow into the gifts you have given me. Help me to see others as you see them, not through the lens of my preconceptions. Amen.

Discussion: Do you react maturely in the face of low expectations?

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Curveballs

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Genesis 50:15-26, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, Mark 8:11-26


Imagine you are Jesus. You’ve just miraculously fed four thousand people with no more than a few loaves and fishes. Not long before that you fed a greater crowd with fewer resources. Now you are in a boat with your disciples trying to use a parable about yeast to warn them about the pharisees and Herod. After a few minutes of pondering what you mean, they decide you are upset because … there is only one loaf of bread in the boat. If you were Jesus, would you have been a little frustrated that no one could seem to get past the lack of bread?

Are we wiser than the disciples? Do we treat every challenge like it’s the first one, or do we learn from our faith journey? No matter how many difficulties we’ve experienced, when new ones arise it can be hard to remember what we’ve survived. If God has seen us through illness, addiction, or betrayal are we able to trust He will see us through the newest crisis on the horizon? It’s not always easy, especially when we face the unfamiliar. Our first reaction is usually fear. But as the disciples eventually learned, trust in God can displace the fear. Trust may not completely eliminate the fear – we are only human! – but it changes our understanding of it. The trick is to remember that to God, this struggle is no worse than the ones that have come before.

Even the “best” lives are not free of challenges. As our faith matures, we begin to recognize huge challenges that didn’t register as important before. Issues of injustice, for example, become more obvious and less acceptable to us. If we can accept that life will never stop throwing us curveballs, that we have not failed because our lives aren’t perfected, maybe we can stop being surprised and devastated by them. If we are more in control of our reactions, we can surrender our troubles to God that much sooner. Some days we may ask how the bread could possibly be enough, but God is leading us to the bigger questions.

Comfort: You are not going through anything that God can’t see you through.

Challenge: When you are frightened by challenges, say prayers of thanks for all the situations God has already brought you through.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for being with me in all situations. Forgive me when my fear interrupts my faith. Teach me to trust in you always. Amen.

Discussion: What things upset or frighten you because you can’t control them? Are you able to turn them over to God?

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Scripture and Life’s Seasons

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, Nehemiah 13:4-22, Revelation 12:1-12, Matthew 13:53-58


As the end of our two-year devotional cycle draws near, we return to Psalm 1, containing the words: “[H]is delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.”

We might like the idea of spending more time exploring scripture, but the reality of dwelling on it day and night may seem daunting, maybe even unnecessary. After we’ve read through the Bible (or the parts we consider important) once or twice, we may begin to feel we “get it” and become satisfied with our understanding. While we may learn some favorite passages to rely on in times of stress or joy, we may also feel the readings at church or bible have grown redundant, and start mentally composing a grocery list when “that scripture” comes up in the rotation. Does this sound like the delight promised in the Psalm?

If our study of scripture is to yield fruit we must return to it with the regularity and reliability of the seasons. Consider your own story for a moment. As you have matured, what new insights have you gained into the narrative of your life? How often does your understanding of the characters in your story evolve? What about your opinion of yourself and your actions? How do you view once beloved books, movies, and television programs from childhood? Though our core personalities are unlikely to change, what we knew firmly at fifteen may be a different story at fifty. And there is a certain delight in realizing we have better insight than we used to.

The same is true of our study of scripture. Each time we meditate on a passage, the experiences we’ve gained influence our understanding of the text. Sometimes the experience was intentional, such as reading a Bible commentary offering historical context. Other times the experience was more organic: hearing “love is patient, love is kind”  on a wedding day is very different than hearing it after twenty years of living within a marriage. Life helps us understand scripture in new ways, and regular scripture reading helps us understand new things about life.

Comfort: Scripture is always waiting for us with new depths of truth.

Challenge: Commit to daily scripture reading through the end of the year.

Prayer: Gracious and merciful God, may your Word be ever on my heart.

Discussion: Has your understanding of any particular piece of scripture evolved over time?

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But what has God done for me lately?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 57; 145, 1 Samuel 10:17-27, Acts 7:44-8:1a, Luke 22:52-62


New relationships are exciting. We learn new things. We feel new things. We expect new things. But as a relationship matures, we realize we can’t depend on things being constantly new. Deep relationships are based on established expectations. If we are wise, we confide more in someone we’ve grown to trust over time than in our most recent acquaintance. Unfortunately, we can become almost addicted to the excitement of new relationships because they raise immediately gratifying emotions. In the worst cases, we never learn to value depth over novelty.

In today’s reading from Acts, Stephen finishes telling his Hebrew audience the history of their people and how inconstant has been their faithfulness to God, the cycle of loving God when they are being delivered, and neglecting – or even turning away from – God after their memory of God’s deliverance begins to fade. In our passage from Judges, Saul has been selected as king because the people, in opposition to God’s wishes, want a king to be more like the idolatrous nations around them.

In what ways can we be like the ancient Hebrews? When people first find their faith, or have a faith-renewing experience, it’s like the beginning of a new relationship. They are wrapped up in feelings. They see God everywhere. They can be practically giddy. But novelty eventually fades. If the relationship ages without maturing, they need new experiences – like new “signs” – of God’s love and presence. An immature relationship demands constant reassurance because it values feeling over faith.

What a mature relationship with God may lack in flash, it makes up in substance. Like lifelong friends who are content simply to be in each other’s presence, our relationship with God may be punctuated with long periods of silence. We shouldn’t confuse this silence with absence or boredom. Like a fallow field, it may seem dormant, but below the surface its very structure is constantly renewed. While the steady maintenance of a good relationship, especially when it seems “dull,” may not produce the high of something new, an enduring relationship built on faith and trust is infinitely more rewarding.


Additional Reading:
For more about Stephen, traditionally considered the first Christian martyr, see Stephen The Leader or Sax and Violence.

Comfort: In times of God’s silence, we still build our relationship.

Challenge: This week, devote 10 minutes a day to silent meditation.

Prayer: God of renewal, I seek a mature and confident relationship with you.

Discussion: Think about your enduring relationships. What do they have in common?

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Weathering The Storms

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 149, Hosea 10:1-15, Acts 25:13-27, Luke 8:16-25


How often have we heard teams pray before a sporting event to ask God to help them win the big game (and by inference, sabotage the other team, as though getting God to cheat for you is sportsmanlike)? How many people thank Jesus for everything from parking spots to Grammy awards, as if they are saying “Good job!” to a personal assistant? Our relationship with our God should be close, but not so cozy we forget who is in charge.

When the disciples were afraid their boat would sink in a storm, they woke Jesus from his sleep. He rebuked and calmed the storm – and then he rebuked the disciples for their lack of faith. To this point they had experienced Jesus as a healer, storyteller, and prophet who taught forgiveness. For the first time, they got a glimpse of the raw power of a being who could command the clouds and sea. Not surprisingly, this revelation amazed and frightened them. They asked themselves exactly who it was they’d agreed to follow.

As we mature in our own faith, our experiences may be similar. At some point we must move past the non-threatening, undemanding baby Jesus in the manger, to a more adult Jesus who makes loving but firm demands of us. The more we follow him, the more we realize how harrowing discipleship can be. Like those first disciples, we cry out for the Jesus who takes away our problems, but eventually we learn he expects us to have faith through our personal storms. Jesus is not just a servant, but a servant leader who teaches us to have faith that casts out fear. The closer we grow, the greater our awe and the more we realize just how amazing his love for us is, because he is so much greater than we will ever imagine.

When your storm comes up, do you want to be the disciple who in a faithless panic wakes Jesus? Better to be the disciple who can say “I kept the course faithfully – even through trouble – because I trust in you, Lord.”

Comfort: We can be confident Jesus is present during all life’s storms.

Challenge: When you pray in times of trouble, ask yourself (and God) whether you should be praying to avoid or endure them.

Prayer: Teach me, Lord, to trust you in difficult and frightening times. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever become stronger from a situation you would rather have prayed away?

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!