As we forgive…

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 88; 148, 2 Kings 9:17-37, 1 Corinthians 7:1-9, Matthew 6:7-15


If you found out you were going to die tomorrow, would you have time to forgive all the people who had wronged you?

When Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, he included “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Some translations of this prayer use the word “sin” or “trespass” instead of debt, but the meaning is pretty clear; Jesus explains the prayer by telling them they will be forgiven in the spirit which they forgive.

That’s bad news for grudge holders.

The good news is forgiveness in this sense is not about how we feel – which is something we can’t control – but about how we act, which is something we can control. Like loving our neighbors doesn’t require any actual affection, forgiving our debtors doesn’t involve resigning ourselves to whatever trespass they’ve committed against us. In the long run for our own peace of mind and mental health it’s probably preferable to get to emotionally better places, but we don’t have to be there yet to do what Christ has us pray. Does that sound hypocritical? Christ’s instructions are indifferent to our emotions, so acting on those instructions when we don’t feel like it is not so much disingenuous as it is a testament to faithfulness.

Forgiveness is a vital component of faith. Jesus speaks of it many times. If withholding forgiveness can keep us separated from God, it must be sinful. Yet we seem to spend so much more time preaching, talking about, and judging each other on a list of Dos-and-Don’ts we can’t even agree on. We’re happy to quote Paul and tell fornicators and the sexually immoral they won’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but we don’t say much to address the people in the pews who refuse to let go of a neighborhood feud over fence height.

We love because we are loved. We forgive because we are forgiven. How we feel about it while we do it is not the point. How we feel about it afterward  might just nudge our hearts even closer to God.

Comfort: You are forgiven.

Challenge: You must forgive.

Prayer: [Recite the Lord’s Prayer]

Discussion: Does your ability to forgive someone depend on whether they seem sorry?

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Say a little prayer for you.

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, 2 Samuel 12:15-31, Acts 20:1-16, Mark 9:30-41


Because David and Bathsheba’s child was conceived in treachery, murder, and ingratitude for all the Lord had given him, the Lord told David the child would not be permitted to live. For a week David fasted, wept, and pleaded. Afterward he returned to his normal routine. His servants, confused that he seemed less grief-stricken than before, asked what was going on.

He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me, and the child may live.’ But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”

That’s … practical. And there’s something to be said for being able to make peace with things the way they are. It’s also admirable that David took time to worship when his vigil ended; he wouldn’t have been the first or last person to reject God in disappointment.

But still. Where were his prayers when he was tempted to chase Bathsheba in the first place?

It’s not like David wasn’t a prayerful man – he’s credited with seventy-three of the psalms. However like many of us, he seemed to believe that when we want something, it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission. Have you ever had (or perhaps been) that friend or family member who asks for advice except for when they’ve already made up their mind to do the wrong thing? They (or we) frequently aren’t as hesitant to ask for help or sympathy cleaning up the inevitable mess.

Writer Anne LaMott characterizes her favorite prayers as “Help, Thanks, Wow.” It’s important not to think of them as three discrete prayers triggered by different events. Had David been consistently grateful and seeking God’s guidance, he might have been better prepared to handle the sight of Bathsheba’s beauty without succumbing to his lust.

It’s our everyday relationship with God that prepares us for life’s more extraordinary circumstances. If we turn our hearts over to God before the mess begins, we may avoid it entirely.


Additional Reading:
For thoughts on today’s reading from Acts, see The Ledge.
For thoughts on today’s passage from Mark, see Career Advice.

Comfort: We’re going to make mistakes, and God will see us through. 

Challenge: Let’s at least try to make them faithfully, though. If you don’t have a regular prayer routine, find one that works for you.

Prayer: O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (Psalm 63:1)

Discussion: By the end of today’s passage from Samuel, David and Bathsheba have moved on and had another child whom God loved. How do you think people who have done terrible things find the strength and love of God to bounce back from them?

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!

Pharisee Territory

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 149, Malachi 3:13-4:6, James 5:13-20, Luke 18:9-14


A Pharisee and a tax collector were praying in the temple. The Pharisee thanked God that he was not like immoral people such as the tax collector. He even boasted to God about his tithing and fasting. The tax collector prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus told to this parable to some who were patting themselves on the back for their righteousness while condemning others, and he advised them, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

We all like to think we are like the tax collector, but it’s tough. We can’t just not be the Pharisee. The tax collector – who would have been judged by his fellow Jews for working for the Roman empire – never compared himself to anyone. He simply admitted his sins before God and asked for mercy. True humility goes beyond not bragging, to embracing the idea that we could be completely wrong but still trusting in God’s mercy to forgive us and possibly set us right.

When we differ with people on matters of religion, politics, or anything else, it’s natural and easy to talk about why they are wrong. Mostly we talk about it with like-minded people who reinforce our opinions, but sometimes we gird ourselves for philosophical battle. If that happens, are we more concerned with convincing others we are right (which by definition insists they are wrong), or in finding common ground for mutual benefit? It feels good to puncture the balloons of the self-righteous, but when it is designed to shame or demonize rather than serve and love, we aren’t doing the work of the kingdom, because we’ve wandered into Pharisee territory.

Loving our enemies isn’t going to feel satisfying. At times it will feel downright humiliating. Yet that is what Christ calls us to do. If we are to be peacemakers, we need to let go of ego, and then to let go of the certainty that we’ve let go of ego. We are not justified by triumph in this world, but by faith in the realm of God.

Comfort: God doesn’t love you for being right, but for being faithful.

Challenge: In discussions or arguments about sensitive topics, try to understand the opposing point of view (rather than your preconceptions about it) before asserting your own.

Prayer: O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. Amen.

Discussion: Are there topics you can’t discuss without insisting on your way?

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Justice or Just Us?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 88; 148, Malachi 3:1-12, James 5:7-12, Luke 18:1-8


Jesus told a parable about a widow who kept asking a judge for justice against her opponent. This judge neither feared God nor respected people. He refused her for a long time, but eventually relented so she would not wear him out with constant bother. Jesus said if such an unjust judge granted justice, God would surely be swift to grant justice to His children when they cried out to him.

Justice doesn’t always seem swift. Like the widow, we keep asking but it eludes us. Why would a God who acts swiftly make us wait? Danish philosopher and Christian theologian Søren Kierkegaard said “Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.” When justice seems slow, perhaps it is because we are slow to change. If our prayer for justice remains unanswered, could it be time to examine what we’re asking for, why we’re asking, and whether we need to change to make it happen? Or maybe we are changing, but don’t feel it. We don’t know how many times the widow approached the judge, or what she said, but in her persistence she one day became the person he didn’t want to be bothered by again. Even if her demand never changed, what she represented did and that could only happen over time.

When Pope Francis said: “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works,” he was very much in line with Kierkegaard. If our only hope for justice is outside ourselves and our relationship with God, we will be forever disappointed. Despite what you’ve read on bumper stickers, Gandhi never actually said “Be the change you want to see in the world,” but it resonates with us because it is a universal truth. Justice begins on the inside. We can point fingers all day long, often with good reason, but ultimately that fixes nothing and persuades no one.

Prayer is what we say, but also what we do and how we live. If you feel like justice isn’t being served, maybe it’s waiting for you to whip up a batch.

Comfort: Prayer will change you if you let it.

Challenge: Be open to being changed.

Prayer: Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, and your justice. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever realized you were the solution to a problem?

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!

The Art of Prayer

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, Judges 13:1-15, Acts 5:27-42, John 3:22-36


Art teaches truth beyond the scope of mere facts. The poetry of Psalm 102, for example, invokes vivid images because the facts do not adequately communicate the depths of the psalmist’s despair or his awe of the Lord. “I am terribly sad” tells us something, but it can’t compare to the exquisite anguish of “I eat ashes with my food and mingle my drink with tears.” While “God is eternal” suffices for academic theology discussions, it doesn’t say much about God’s relationship to the mortal world. Describing the heavens and earth as garments that God will eventually change when they wear out puts us in touch with the vastness of eternity. Burning bones, withering grass, a little bird on a roof – these densely packed images don’t just impart knowledge but tune us into the emotional state of the psalmist.

Artistic forms of prayer can lend depth to our spiritual experiences. When we pray from our deepest pains or joys, stating the facts or making requests may cast only pale shadows of our actual experiences and needs, even to ourselves. Could we consider writing God a poem? The idea may sound like something to do when Vacation Bible School is rained out, but the Bible is loaded with prayerful poems. Its 150 psalms and numerous canticles (hymns) teach us poetry and music are an integral part of our faith language. The psalms themselves were originally meant to be sung, and the layers of artistic expression add to their power. We don’t have to be great poets or composers to turn our feelings into art; when it comes to prayer, honesty trumps virtuosity every time. Any honest attempt at prayer can only bring us closer to God.

Approaching the Bible, prayer, or God from a poetic or other artistic perspective opens us to new ways of knowing. Modern culture tends to equate truth only with facts, but truth is transcendent. History books are informative, but Picasso’s Guernica illuminates the devastation of war in ways no book could convey. Being created in God’s image, however we understand that, means we too are fulfilled by creating.

Comfort: Your opportunities for praise and prayer are endless.

Challenge: Write a poem to God about your current state of mind. No one else has to read.

Prayer: Lord of all creation, thank you for the gift of creativity. Amen.

Discussion: What are your creative outlets? Can you see any connections between them and your faith?

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!

Peace as Preparation

Today’s readings: Psalms 18:1-20; 147:12-20, Zechariah 4:1-14, Revelation 4:9-5:5, Matthew 25:1-13

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In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus relates a parable about ten bridesmaids – five foolish and five wise. They all take lamps to meet the bridegroom, but only the wise ones take supplies to keep the lamps burning when the bridegroom is delayed. The foolish bridesmaids ask the other for oil, but the wise ones are wise enough to say no because they’d all be unprepared. The foolish bridesmaids leave to buy oil and return to find the bridegroom and wise bridesmaids have left them behind.

It’s not difficult to imagine the foolish bridesmaids thought of themselves as unlucky, or victims of the wise bridesmaids’ stingy nature. Very often what we call poor luck or unfairness is our own lack of preparation. How do we properly prepare for the kingdom of God?

By not giving away more oil than we can spare. That doesn’t mean a lack of generosity; we should be generous of spirit and wallet. The oil we need to keep topped off is the energy to stay vigilant for the presence of Christ in the world. Many things conspire to steal this energy if we allow them: demanding jobs,  busy social schedules, housekeeping, and so on. None of these things is inherently problematic – they are  mostly good! – but neither is any of them our true purpose. If we don’t learn to say “no more oil for you, foolish bridesmaid” the energy left over for worship, charity, and our relationship with God can quickly dwindle to nothing. And by the way, if we think of those as “left overs” the reserves are already below acceptable levels. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36)

Preparation means laying the groundwork for our whole lives, not just our spare time, to serve God. When we carefully steward our resources, we have enough energy to seek Christ and our peace in him. We must fill and refill our own lamps through prayer, service, rest, and worship.The wise will not save us from ourselves. Have you checked your oil lately? Tomorrow could be too late.

Comfort: It’s okay to do less so you can be more.

Challenge: Take an inventory of your obligations and eliminate the ones that drain your oil.

 

Peace as Silence

Today’s readings: Psalms 50; 147:1-11, Zechariah 3:1-10, Revelation 4:1-8, Matthew 24:45-51

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A popular acronym advises us to THINK before we speak –  to ask ourselves whether what we are about to say is true, helpful, inspirational, necessary, and/or kind. THINK may seem cliched, but it’s still excellent advice. Psalms 50:19-20 speaks to us today when it says:

“You give your mouth free rein for evil,
and your tongue frames deceit.
You sit and speak against your kin;
you slander your own mother’s child.”

Our current cultural mix of traditional and social media pushes us to opine on the latest news before it’s fully reported, to become outraged over (non?) events we really know nothing about, and to offer our often uninformed commentary in formats that remove the social buffers normally keeping us civil. The rapid-fire sarcasm and verbal slugfests that pass for dialogue and entertainment frequently have no purpose but shouting our own opinions and displaying our own cleverness.

Fortunately we do have the ability to turn it off. Simply deciding not to respond to every opinion we hear or read can be a solid start. Many people never quite get that concept: they will continue to respond as long as someone else continues to antagonize them. Withdrawal from a contentious non-productive exchange of spoken words, texts, or comment sections is not some admission of defeat.  Consciously moving away from violent noise and into silence is an affirmation of peace.

At other times the conversation we need to end is the one we’re having with ourselves. Negative self-talk damages our spirits, and we may need a great deal of counseling to learn to stop it. Wordy prayers that run on and on are not a conversation with God – they are a monologue of doubt and desperation.

Silence, both external and internal, makes space for Elijah’s “still small voice” of God. It gives our thoughts room to expand and mature. It teaches us what is important and what is fleeting. When we regularly seek the peace of silence, we are better prepared when it is time to speak up for matters of justice, mercy, and love.

Comfort: God waits for us in the silence.

Challenge: Find time each day to meditate, unplug, or make whatever arrangements you need to enjoy a period of auditory and mental silence.

Peace as Surrender

Today’s readings: Psalms 33; 146, Zechariah 2:1-13, Revelation 3:14-22, Matthew 24:32-44

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We are not generally fond of the term “surrender” unless it is preceded by “never.” Surrender implies loss, weakness, and cowardice. We lionize those who fight to the death rather than wave the white flag. Our concept of surrender is almost exclusively military, understood in terms of victory or defeat … and ignoble defeat at that.

Maybe that is why we struggle to surrender to God. When we end a prayer for a new job or a good health report with “if it’s God’s will” … doesn’t a small part of us hope God is taking the hint? Truly surrendering to God’s will is a terrifying prospect. One critique of Christians is that we show weakness of character by claiming everything is God’s will to dodge responsibility. Might it be closer to the truth to say we are good at paying lip service to God’s will, but not so good at actually accepting it? Can we really even claim to understand what “God’s will” means? In reality, it takes much courage to surrender ourselves to God; to do so is to risk total annihilation of our own identities.

Except it never seems to turn out that way. When we truly make the effort to surrender ourselves – or even one tiny problem – to God, we find our burdens lightened and our real selves rising to the surface. Does “the effort to surrender” sound like an oxymoron? Isn’t surrender the opposite of doing something? If you’ve tried it, you know it’s not just an effort but an ongoing effort. When we learn to surrender daily, we finally find peace.

Psalm 33 tells us great armies, superior strength, and the mightiest resources ultimately do not save us. Our victory – our peace – lies in trusting the Lord. It’s so easy to convince ourselves our own plans must be God’s plans, and then because we can’t tell the difference, our disappointment robs us of our peace. C.S. Lewis said of prayer: “It doesn’t change God – it changes me.” Let us pray with an attitude of surrender, and trust God to reveal to us our best and most peaceful selves.

Comfort: We can trust that God accepts our surrender with our best interests at heart.

Challenge: What is one problem you need to surrender to God? Put in the work to let it go.