“Is not this to know me?”

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Jeremiah 22:13-23, Romans 8:12-27, John 6:41-51


Many teachings of Jesus, especially about justice and mercy for those who are poor, echoed the words of the prophets before him. Consider these words from Jeremiah:

  Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
          and his upper rooms by injustice;
     who makes his neighbors work for nothing,
          and does not give them their wages;
who says, “I will build myself a spacious house
          with large upper rooms,”
     and who cuts out windows for it,
          paneling it with cedar,
          and painting it with vermilion […]
     Did not your father eat and drink
          and do justice and righteousness?
          Then it was well with him.
He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
          then it was well.
     Is not this to know me?
          says the LORD.
But your eyes and heart
     are only on your dishonest gain,
     for shedding innocent blood,
          and for practicing oppression and violence.

Fair wages. Dishonest gain. Excess ignoring need. Oppression. Social justice is inseparable – perhaps indistinguishable – from faith. Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul … these Biblical voices seem far less concerned with whether we hold other people accountable for their misdeeds than with whether we hold ourselves accountable for doing mercy and justice. Jeremiah’s audience probably thought their cedar-paneled wealth was a sign God favored them, when the opposite was true.

Lyn White of Animals Australia wrote: “The greatest ethical test that we’re ever going to face is the treatment of those who are at our mercy.” She was referring to animal cruelty, but this idea applies to people as well. If we are financially comfortable, lots of people are at the mercy of how we choose to use our resources. The pennies we save choosing cheap prices over fair labor practices; the time we spend evaluating the merit of the poor and needy rather than helping them; the violence we allow to continue because confronting it is inconvenient; Jeremiah could easily be addressing these sins today.

Only a couple more weeks remain in this Lenten season. Let us take time to reflect on how Jeremiah still speaks to us – not some general “us” but us personally.

Comfort: God craves justice for the poor and oppressed.

Challenge: Work on thinking of justice not as punishment for those who steal bread, but as contributing to a kingdom where no one goes hungry.

Prayer: God of Abundance, teach me to be generous with all I have, and stingy with my judgments. Amen.

Discussion: Would you pay more for something if the extra cost guaranteed someone would not go to bed hungry?

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!

Never on a Sunday

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Jeremiah 3:6-18, Romans 1:(26-27) 28-2:11, John 5:1-18


Do you play by the rules?

In theory we’re all expected to, but in practice they seem to apply to some of us more than others. How frustrating it is when people with wealth or influence can buy their way around the rules or the consequences of breaking them.

Still, most of us try to follow the rules.  Maybe not the same rules, but generally speaking our behaviors fall into patterns that we apply consciously and subconsciously. Some rules are taught to us by our families, some by society, and some by simple observation. Most are created for good reasons, but over time circumstances change and the rationale for many rules—including religious ones—grows distorted.

Rules can become so integral to our identities that breaking them, even when they cease to have meaning, threatens our sense of self. If that happens, we may find ourselves existing to serve the rules, rather than the other way around. When this happens, we begin to observe the technicalities of the rules rather than their spirit. Sometimes this looks like doing the bare minimum, and sometimes it looks like obsessive behavior.

The Sabbath healings of Jesus presented just such a threat to the Pharisees, whose identity depended on rules.

Since Sabbath healings – which were against the rules – appear in all four Gospels, we can assume the message of these stories is important. Rather than judge the Pharisees, let’s learn from their example.

Our expectations of other people’s behavior are often based on the rules we’ve imposed on ourselves. We may become offended when such expectations are not met, regardless of whether or not we’ve made said expectations clear. When this happens, we choose how to react: we can dig in our heels, or we can examine the reason for our offense. We needn’t automatically assume we are wrong, but self-examination never hurt anyone. Like Jesus, we need to consider when rules are appropriate, and when they should be superseded by compassion, justice, or love. In Christ we are a people of love, and not a people of law—even self-imposed law. Is the Sabbath made holier by offering mercy or withholding it?

But Christianity is not a free-for-all! Christ has expectations of his followers. Determining these expectations can be hard work, because “love your neighbor” is not nearly as explicit as a list of forbidden activities. Loving someone doesn’t absolve them – or us – of accountability. Christ didn’t offer formulas for faith, but principles for relationships with our God and our neighbor. Our rule is love, and its accompanying expectations can change with each person we encounter.

Comfort: You are more than the rules you follow.

Challenge: When someone doesn’t meet your expectations, ask yourself whether you made that person aware of them.

Prayer: Merciful God, teach me when to be merciful, and when to stand strong. Amen.

Discussion: Has assuming someone should “just know” something ever caused trouble for you?

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!

Ideology or Idolatry?

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 104; 149, Isaiah (42:18-25) 43:1-13, Ephesians 3:14-21, Mark 2:23-3:6


Ideology is a sneaky devil. When we are born into one, we usually don’t even think of it as an ideology, but simply as the way things are – or should be. For example, capitalism is the dominant economic ideology of the western world. We talk about it as though it is an actual entity, but in truth it is a collective agreement to adhere to a set of principles. No one still living was party to the original “agreement,” but centuries later we all (for the most part) continue to operate under its rules.

As with any ideology, over time there has been a subtle but consistent shift of how we think about it: those who originally adopted the principles did so to serve society; today we consider those principles essential to our identity, and often behave as though society exists to serve them.

Unadulterated capitalism – like any economic theory – is neither practical nor, in the long term, beneficial so we have tempered it with some socialist practices, yet we can’t even bring ourselves to call them that. To sustain an ideology we must turn a blind eye to its faults, often at our own peril.

In many Gospel stories, Jesus rejected cultural ideology in order to serve humanity. After he plucked grain and healed a man on the Sabbath, in violation of Hebrew ideology, the Pharisees started conspiring to destroy him. His admonition that “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” did not move them. Jesus knew that their ideology had become idolatry: they placed the letter of the scripture above the intent of God.

What ideologies have we turned into idolatries? The Pharisees were certain of their rigid interpretation of scripture. Should we be as sure of our own? Have we ever defended or attacked an idea simply because the “other side” criticized or promoted it? The worst examples may be when we let political, religious, and economic ideologies blend into an unexamined hodgepodge that corrupts faith into an excuse to neglect and abuse our fellow humans.

When we are most sure of our ideologies, we are least able to consider them wisely, so they are the most dangerous. Wisdom tells us mercy trumps idolatrous laws. By example Christ teaches us to examine them and use them to serve, not to blindly bend to them. God trusts us to think. Let’s trust God enough to do so.

Comfort: It’s perfectly acceptable to question what you’ve been taught to believe.

Challenge: Ask questions.

Prayer: God of truth and mercy, I will serve the law of love and the gospel of peace. Amen.

Discussion: Some people assume questioning something will lead to rejecting it. How do you feel about that?

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!

Humble Piety

Today’s readings:
Psalms 46 or 47; 147:12-20, Isaiah 65:1-9, Revelation 3:1-6, John 6:1-4


The Gospels may be “The Good News,” but many of the things Jesus taught us – or perhaps more accurately re-taught us – were good and old. Centuries before Jesus reminded the people of his day that true obedience to God meant embodying a spirit of mercy and justice – rather than mercilessly following the letter of the law – Old Testament prophets had tried to deliver the same message. Isaiah told the exiled nation of Israel she had lost God’s favor because of her “holier than thou” attitude (not even paraphrasing – see Isaiah 65:5). Their burnt offerings, once a pleasing fragrance, became a stench in God’s nostrils as they substituted superficial piety for love and mercy.

Flash forward 800 years, and no one seemed to have learned anything. The occupying force may have changed from Babylon to Rome, but the Jewish people still needed to hear they were like whitewashed tomb: dressed up on the outside, but decaying inside. Flash forward another millennium or two and – no surprise – followers of Jesus need to hear we might be a little too focused on displays of piety and not enough on mercy. Who are the prophets of the message this time? Certainly many voices from within the church, but more telling are the voices of outsiders looking in. Surveys consistently reveal that non-Christians perceive Christians as hypocritical and judgmental. When non-believers are filling in for Isaiah and Jesus, it’s time to take note.

Misplaced piety seems to be a chronic condition of the faithful. And lest we begin to feel too superior for reigning in our own pious impulses … that’s a form of it also. The good (old) news is that prophets speak because there is always hope we will listen and change our ways. Sowing mercy and justice is challenging work. It’s much more comfortable to check off lists and to follow familiar rules than to listen to the voices telling us we need to reevaluate what we think God wants from us – especially when that might mean others will look down on us. When we feel challenged, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev 3:6).

Comfort: God’s message to us has remained constant.

Challenge: We have to do the work of properly understanding it.

Prayer: God of Grace, teach me to be merciful.

Discussion: We are all sometimes guilty of hypocrisy. What do you do when you find yourself acting like a hypocrite?

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!

Continental Divide

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 102; 148, Isaiah 7:10-25, 2 Thessalonians 2:13-3:5, Luke 22:14-30


A continental divide is a geological boundary which, simply put, separates rivers and streams draining toward one body of water from those draining into another. For example, the North American Great Continental Divide roughly marks the border between rivers flowing east toward the Atlantic Ocean and rivers flowing west toward the Pacific Ocean. “Going with the flow” has a different meaning on each side of the divide. If you want to navigate waterways successfully, you need to know where the divide lies.

To successfully navigate a spiritual life upstream we might want to think of it as having a similar divide, but instead of East versus West, it’s more internal versus external. When facing the internal – that is, ourselves and the things we can control – we should try to be objective critics of our own attitudes and behaviors. We progress by identifying where and how we can change, and accepting God’s grace and mercy to help us work toward that change. When we are facing the external – that is, other people and the world beyond our control – we instead need to reflect God’s grace and mercy, and withhold judgment.

Upstream isn’t always the easiest path. Isn’t it more pleasant to let the current carry us downstream? It’s less work. We can go with the flow and let our natural inclinations to excuses ourselves and to condemn others carry us downstream. But that’s the wrong direction.

Even at the Last Supper, Christ’s followers tended toward the easier, backward route.

After Jesus revealed that the one who would betray him was at the table with the disciples, he didn’t name a name. Did any of them (other than his actual betrayer, Judas) focus inward and ask “Could it possibly be me? Why or why not?”  No, each immediately denied the possibility it could be him and started trying to figure where to point the finger. This curiosity is natural, but if Jesus didn’t identify Judas, why did the disciples seek the right to condemn him?

After only a short time, the conversation devolved into an argument over who among them was the greatest.  We don’t get details, but judging from Jesus’s reaction, it was a lot of self-promotion. Nobody was arguing “No, I’m nothing; you’re the greatest.” The external focus was on dominating others rather than elevating them.

Jesus offers us rivers of living water (John 7:38). We need to learn to navigate them with inward humility and outward mercy to carry our faith where it needs to be.

Comfort: You are both the recipient of grace, and its reflection in the world.

Challenge: Though it’s almost cliched, be the change you want to see in the world.

Prayer: God of grace and mercy, I rely on you for all things in my life, and will share all things from you in the lives of others. Amen.

Discussion: Do you have any tendency to impose your faith on others when you should be asking questions of 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  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!

Alien

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, Joshua 2:1-14, Romans 11:1-12, Matthew 25:1-13


The book of Joshua jars modern Christian sensibilities – or at least it should.

Full of slaughter committed in the name of holy war, the Hebrew text frequently refers to kherem, a word meaning “to utterly destroy.” Try as we might, can we imagine Jesus commanding a group of Christians to annihilate not just one town but several down to the last woman, child, goat, and shed? Even for those who believe Jesus will return as a conqueror, that image should be disturbing. However we struggle with and maybe resist such ideas, grappling with them helps us grow in our understanding of human and divine nature.

When I was a kid, I watched Star Trek reruns every Saturday. I especially loved episodes that introduced new alien races. As I grew older, I noticed a disturbing trend. Each race seemed homogenous. They didn’t just have identical uniforms – they had uniform values, opinions, and attitudes. When we did meet aliens who were exceptions, what set them apart was almost always an embrace of familiar human values. Despite the intentional diversity given to the Enterprise crew by its creative team, the human tendency to stereotype the unfamiliar and exalt the familiar emerged.

When Joshua’s spies encounter Rahab in today’s reading, she is the exceptional alien. When she protects them – that is, when she embraces their values – she becomes sympathetic, so she and her family will be spared from the coming destruction. Even though she explicitly tells the spies there are other Canaanites who share her beliefs, those people are not even considered for mercy. If Joshua or his people had come to know other Canaanites as they had Rahab, how eager would they have been to embrace kherem? How does the narrative in Joshua compare with God’s earlier instruction in Exodus 22:21 – “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt?”

Clearly genocide is not an acceptable notion for modern Christians or Jews. While it is true God’s justice is beyond our understanding, any comfort – or even eagerness – some of us find in the notion of slaughtering God’s (which usually means our) enemies requires some serious reflection on our own hearts and motives. When reading Joshua, we must account for cultural context and seek out the theological themes underlying the story itself. Our reaction to its violence is an opportunity to reflect on how God wants us to relate to the alien today.

Comfort: No one is an alien to God.

Challenge: Who is your Rahab? On a bookmark-sized piece of paper, make a list of people who have defied your cultural preconceptions. Use it to mark your place as we read through the book of Joshua over the next couple weeks.

Prayer: God of the Known and Unkown, temper my judgments and cultivate my mercy. Amen.

Discussion: Who is your Rahab? Who has defied your cultural preconceptions? Did they influence your view of only themselves, or of many people?

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!

Questions Beyond Borders

Chain Link Border Fence

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post that started about the Handmaid’s Tale and ended up a reaction to the Attorney General using Romans 13 to justify the zero-tolerance policy implemented on our southern border, and by extension its effective separation of children from their parents. I don’t get a lot of comments on my blog (read into that what you will), but I did get a private Facebook message from someone.

This person – a childhood neighbor, fellow Christian, lover of beauty and creativity, and in my humble estimation an all-around good and generous egg – asked my thoughts on a couple questions.

  • What do think would happen if hundreds of thousands of Americans decided to enter some other country without “papers” (for lack of a better word)?
  • What if a child born in the United States (parents from another country) decided to leave the USA and take up residence in the Country of his or her parents?

These questions are sincere and important and immediately sent my mind spinning in a dozen directions. I want to answer (and expound on) them sincerely and respectfully. I am grateful to her for thoughtful engagement.

WITHOUT PAPERS

The author of The Handmaid’s Tale – the source material for the television series which was the genesis of my original sidetracked post – actually does tackle the idea of a sudden onslaught of refugees from the (former) United States into Canada. The Canadians accept anyone who can make it across the border. The hope of these refugees is to eventually to reclaim and resettle to their homes, but there is no indication that will be soon. However the question was what do I think would happen. Try as I might I can’t come to a more solid answer than … it depends.

But on what?

First, it depends on the destination country.

Different nations have different philosophies and policies around immigration, refugees, and asylum. The legal distinction among those classes is important. Germany, for instance, doesn’t admit just anyone outside the European Union as a migrant for economic or personal reasons, but it has been famously accepting millions of refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East. Italy, on the other hand, has been less willing to accept such refugees. Both countries are party to the 1951 Refugee Convention – as is the United States, but only per amendments as of the 1967 Protocol which actually expands the definition of refugee – but all interpret their corresponding responsibilities differently.

Second, it would depend on the reason.

The United States is a wealthy nation offering more economic and personal security than most countries typically known for displaced refugees. Were that to change (a la The Handmaid’s Tale) due to natural disaster, civil war, economic collapse, or other circumstances, and if such changes created groups of people who were endangered with no recourse through the national government, U.S. refugees would probably be received as sympathetically as other refugees. But – and this is a big but – the last couple centuries of history of the U.S. as an extension of Western European development is that of the colonizer far more than of the oppressed. Native Americans brought to the brink of extinction, enslaved African Americans, and Japanese Americans interned during World War II would have certainly qualified as refugees from the United States under the definition of the Refugee Convention, but when we picture the possibility of “Americans” approaching foreign borders is that really who we’re thinking of? Under present circumstances, an approaching horde of Americans of Western European descent seems more likely to be seizing than fleeing. God forbid our fortune changes, but unless it does, people leaving the United States in droves is a far different scenario than people fleeing countries which have descended into violent narco-states ruled by murderous gangs.

Third, and this may seem like part of the first but I think it’s important enough to warrant its own consideration – what has been the extralegal, “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” history between the United States and the country in question?

Has it recently changed? For decades the U.S. has largely looked the other way when migrants from Mexico and other nations provided cheap labor to shore up industries like construction, hospitality and agriculture because no one wants to pay fifteen dollars per pound for apples picked at the legal minimum wage. As immigration authorities clamp down on such labor, many farmers are struggling to deal with labor shortages. This relationship has been symbiotic for many years. It hasn’t changed because of economics or danger, but because of politics. It seems to me the concern about “the illegals” has grown proportionately not with the number of Mexicans immigrating to the U.S. (the net is actually negative), but with the so-called “browning of America” – the increasingly large portion of legal, permanent (and native) Latinx residents as compared to whites.

It’d be disingenuous not to note the number of non-Mexican Latinx immigrants is increasing, but a large portion of those are seeking refugee or asylee status. If United States residents started migrating in large numbers to a country where we had been welcomed under the table for years and that country experienced an economic downturn, I expect we’d be far less welcome than we were when the country needed us to continue its flow of cheap products. Even if we weren’t taking the jobs people wanted, we’d be scapegoats. Xenophobia is ever only waiting for the right conditions to reveal itself. Populist movements in the U.S. and Europe are largely about the fear of foreigners changing the cultural and literal complexion of a nation.

BACK WHERE YOU CAME FROM

I don’t necessarily have to speculate about answers to the second question. There are at least a dozen countries that will grant you citizenship if you can prove your parents (and in some cases grandparents) were born as citizens of that country. Other nations would treat you as they treated anyone else who wanted to migrate.

To me, the more interesting part of the question is how we think of borders.

Particularly the borders of the United States. When Europeans began settling North America, the continent was already populated with people and their established territories. Borders didn’t seem to matter much to us as we acquired land through war and genocide. When we annexed Texas and invaded Mexico to expand into territory they would not willingly cede to us, we weren’t too worried about the sovereignty of borders. Until 1882 – nearly a century after the establishment of the US Constitution – there were no immigration laws. There were requirements for citizenship and naturalization, but when we were expanding westward and needed labor, whether people crossed our borders didn’t seem to matter much to us. The first U.S. immigration law – the Chinese Exclusion Act – was not because we wanted the limit the total number of immigrants, but because of the fear of the “Yellow Peril” – that is, Chinese people overwhelming our European heritage – as if somehow Europeans were more deserving of the land we’d stolen than were the Chinese. Other groups were excluded for various reasons, including health, literacy, and anarchist political activity. But we weren’t so worried about borders: we were worried about non-white people.

It wasn’t until 1921 – 134 years after the establishment of the nation – that we began instituting immigration quotas which roughly resembled the ethnic composition of the country at the time. (As an aside, that means anyone claiming their family immigrated “legally” before that time is making a moot point; everyone but Asians were allowed in through established ports of entry).

So what changed during those years?

There are many reasons for secure borders, but those didn’t change. What did change was that we outgrew the sense that we were in a state of constant expansion and unlimited resources. Stretched from coast to coast, bound on the North and South, we realized our limits of geography and resources and decided we didn’t want to share them with just anybody who showed up on the continent.

We basically shut down immigration during the Great Depression, and actually coerced hundreds of thousands of Mexican citizens to repatriate to Mexico. Not the Irish or Germans or English mind you – only the people who were native and who’s ancestors were here before the Europeans and just happened to involuntarily end up on our side of the border after the Mexican-American war.

People wanting to come to America were no longer seen as fellow pioneers in the Great American Experiment, but as threats. The quality of people outside our borders had not changed, but our jealousy of our resources had. Outside a slight concession to refugee resettlement in the 1980s, the focus of our immigration policy has been on maintaining employment and ethnic mix.

Now that we’ve got ours, borders matter to us.

Of course the economy is of national concern, but we need immigrants to maintain the economy. That makes the deciding factor ethnicity. There are plenty of successful people from countries which are mostly non-white, but in my experience proponents of “merit-based” systems rarely use them as examples, and are instead quick to point to mostly wealthy white countries which people have little desire to leave anyway. Our quotas and other immigration policies make implicit judgments about worthiness based on where people are from. Our talk of “merit-based” immigration is also disingenuous to the American ideal: no longer are we here for the huddled masses yearning to breathe free… but come on in if you’ve already made it big!

To me that doesn’t seem very “all men are created equal.”
It doesn’t seem very Christian.
It doesn’t seem very American Dream.

How many of us are here because our ancestors fled something?
How many wouldn’t make the cut today under the same circumstances?
How many railed against the discrimination and persecution they experienced here?
How are we more deserving of this stolen land than people facing the same situations?

THE QUESTION BEHIND THE QUESTIONS

Thinking about immigration as a matter of justice requires thinking about a much larger story than what is legal or illegal, convenient or inconvenient, or profitable or not profitable at this moment in history. Before I get to what I think is the big question behind the original two questions, I want to make a few things clear:

  • I don’t believe in lawless, open borders; I don’t personally know anyone who does.
  • I do believe we need to recognize the basic human dignity of everyone – not just citizens.
  • I don’t have a problem with prosecuting and deporting criminals.
  • I do have a problem with indefinitely separating and/or detaining children and families.

That last point shifted the focus of my prior blog post, which in turn raised the questions addressed in this one. My post was about exploiting scripture to defend the indefensible, and how that is neither conservative nor liberal but dangerously fundamentalist. I specifically didn’t advocate any policy, yet it raised policy-related questions for at least one reader. And the connecting thread between these questions was a deeper question…

What would other countries do?

My short answer to this question behind the questions is: I don’t think it matters.

I want us as a nation to do what is right and merciful, regardless of whether other nations would reciprocate. I’m not going to pretend I personally have the prescription for what is right, but it’s certainly something better than what we have now. As a Christian – as a human being – I can’t look at something as artificial and shifting and arbitrary and historically cruel as a border to restrict my compassion. I’m not advocating for some liberal theocracy (that would be hypocritical), but I think if Christianity does influence American politics it should be through values like mercy and sacrifice.

Make no mistake, I love my country. Heck, it allows me the freedom to write critiques of it, which in this world is no small thing!  But loving something doesn’t mean excusing everything it’s done or is doing. That’s flag-waving tribalism, which leads to stagnation, collapse, and – at its worst – genocide. We need to be vigilant about avoiding tribalism, about valuing or devaluing others based on their ethnicity, and about dehumanizing notions à la Manifest Destiny.

We may not have any more opportunities for geographic expansion, but we can still be pioneers of justice and dignity, even when it requires sacrifice. At its heart, that will be what keeps us a nation worth seeking.


Note: Regarding the history of U.S. immigration law, I drew heavily from this Wikipedia article. Yeah it’s Wiki, but they’re all sourced.

Seventy-Seven Times

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 51; 148, Numbers 13:1-3, 21-30, Romans 2:25-3:8, Matthew 18:21-35


A slave owed his king an unpayable sum. The king decided to sell the slave’s family to collect the debt, but the slave begged for mercy. The king felt pity, released him, and forgave the debt. As the slave walked away, he met a second slave owing him a hundredth of what the king had forgiven. He demanded payment, and when it wasn’t forthcoming he had the second slave jailed. When the king learned this, he revoked his mercy and had the first slave tortured until he paid.

This parable was how Jesus answered Peter’s question: “how often should I forgive?” The story tells us whatever debt we feel someone owes us, God has already forgiven us a debt a hundred (or more!) times greater.

“Tough love” gets tossed around quite a bit. We seem to be firm believers in the power of consequences. It may be fine for parents fostering  the values of children, or managers coaching employees, but the further removed we are from someone personally, the less applicable it becomes. How easy it is to withhold mercy under the pretense of not enabling someone.

By the time we meet most people, life has had its way with them. They behave in ways they have learned best help them physically and emotionally survive. It’s arrogant to assume we would fare better under similar circumstances, and more arrogant to think our petty disciplines will change them.

Should we hand cash to gambling addicts? No. Should we allow co-workers to abuse us? Nope. But when someone is hungry or hurting, we should transcend our grievances to feed and care for them. We can’t fix people – they need to initiate that themselves – but we are called to show mercy to the broken, for we ourselves are broken and beneficiaries of the mercy of God.

Jesus didn’t instruct us to parent everyone. He did instruct us to forgive and love. A crust of bread offered to a starving thief doesn’t condone thievery; it says we trust in something greater we hope to share. Whether he hears that is not up to us.

Comfort: You aren’t responsible for parenting the world.

Challenge: When you feel like someone needs to suffer consequences, ask yourself why.

Prayer: Merciful God, guide me as I seek the balance between mercy and justice.

Discussion: Mercy is a personal matter, but it can seem at odds with civil justice. Have you struggled with this tension? Or do you disagree with the premise?

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 leave comments here on WordPress. And feel free to link back to these blogs or re-blog with attribution to comfortandchallenge.com. Peace!

Speechless

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, Numbers 11:24-33 (34-35), Romans 1:28-2:11, Matthew 18:1-9


“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Jesus followed up these words with his famous teaching of tearing out an eye or removing a hand if it causes us to stumble away from him. He doesn’t mention the tongue, but it seems logical if our tongue causes us to stumble, we should tear that out also. The tongue may be doubly dangerous, as it can cause others to stumble also.

When our tongues tell people the church hates them (even when we’ve convinced ourselves we’re acting in love), they may find it impossible to believe Christ loves them. Too often the church focuses on a particular subset of sins (usually sexual in nature) and targets the people who commit them until they feel driven from the rest of the community. Paul warns us in Romans that by casting judgment on others, while we ourselves remain sinful, we condemn ourselves. Effectively we say: “Your visible sin is too terrible to tolerate, but my personal sin (which flies under the local radar) is more acceptable.”

Don’t think that’s true? Well, the church hasn’t developed a conversion therapy industry around unrepentant greed, and we don’t distribute scarlet J’s for judgment. Yet the greedy and judgmental can feel perfectly safe in a church that creates a climate hostile toward gay people and unwed mothers.

We are all sinners working toward transformation through Christ. We don’t always agree on what is sinful; that has been true for the entire history of the church, but the church survives because we work it out together. Scripture directs us to hold one another accountable, but the gossip-monger is as accountable as the murderer.

Repentance is a journey we take together. If we oust everyone who doesn’t meet someone else’s standards, soon the church will be empty. Better to enter the kingdom speechless than to have talked one of God’s children out of salvation.

Comfort: God loves you.

Challenge: God loves everyone else, too.

Prayer: Loving God, make me an instrument of your peace. Amen.

Discussion: How has your understanding of sin evolved as your faith has matured?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 7, Ecclesiastes 8:14-9:10, Galatians 4:21-31, Matthew 15:9-39


Imagine you are going to ask your employer for a raise or a promotion. You’ve prepared a list of all the reasons you think you deserve it. Are you also prepared to hear your boss share any reasons she or he feels you don’t deserve it?

What about when we decide to offer unsolicited criticism to a friend or coworker? Are we ready for them to return the favor?

Real-life conversations are not like those in a movie or television episode where someone gets to say their piece without interruption and leave the scene with a dramatic exit. When we initiate a challenging or difficult conversation, we should be prepared to hear what the other party has to say. Sometimes that means things won’t turn out the way we want.

The author of Psalm 7 knew this. When asking the Lord to save him from his enemies, he must have been certain of his own blamelessness to say:

O LORD my God, if I have done this,
if there is wrong in my hands,
if I have repaid my ally with harm
or plundered my foe without cause,
then let the enemy pursue and overtake me,
trample my life to the ground,
and lay my soul in the dust.

Fortunately for those of us less confident in our own righteousness, Christ teaches us that we are not caught in a cycle of tit for tat – that God’s mercy isn’t contingent on our blamelessness, but on our own willingness to show mercy ourselves. Unlike asking for a raise, when we ask God for forgiveness, we don’t need to build a case for it so much as humbly acknowledge and repent of our wrongdoing. When we feel convicted of our sins and failings, the Spirit isn’t trying to beat us down into a place of guilt, but to lift us up to a place of renewal.

Eventually we all need to face difficult truths about ourselves. The difference between the world and God is that the world wants you to improve before it can love you, and God loves and forgives you so that you can improve.

Comfort: God loves us despite our flaws.

Challenge: Ask a trusted friend to suggest a way you could improve, then pray about it.

Prayer: Merciful and loving God, thank you for loving me where I am today, and loving me enough to lead me somewhere better tomorrow.

Discussion: What flaw do you struggle to change?

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.