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Daily Bible Readings and Reflections for the Week of May 24, 2020

Friday, May 29, 2020
Matthew 9:9-17

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.

And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.’

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Guilt by association translates into Sin by association in the judgemental world of fake religion
surrounding Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees live in a world of judgement and condemnation. Matthew is a sinner. No good Jew should associate with him or they too support his sins.

Jesus saw the good in Matthew and called him to follow. Jesus sees what Matthew will accomplish for God in his time, not the sins he has committed in the past. Jesus agrees to eat a meal at Matthew’s house. And Matthew’s tax collector friends join him. The Pharisees cannot understand this. And they judge Jesus along with Matthew. Guilt by association…

This is why Jesus states that it is “the sick” who need a doctor, not “the healthy.” Jesus’ claim was that the point of his ministry was to call sinners, not the righteous. God desires mercy, not sacrifice. So, Jesus seeks out those who he wants to call back to God’s love, not gather those who are already inside that circle. The Pharisees have evolved an US versus THEM mentality and are not interested in those who fall outside the law. Their concern is those who are the IN crowd who piously keep the law.

Hence, their religion is false. It is not in line with God’s love. Beyond that idea, Jesus employs a few other images to make the same point.

It is true that tax collectors at the time used violence to extract taxes from the people. It is true that they took much more than the Roman overlords asked for and kept most of it for themselves. And, it is true that they sold out their own people to become rich and powerful in Occupied Palestine. But Matthew was willing to give over that life and follow Jesus. So, as far as Jesus was concerned, all was forgiven.

In this passage, Jesus calls himself the bridegroom, and claims that celebration is required when he is here, not fasting and mourning. He predicts that fasting will occur when the bridegroom is taken away. Here is yet another reference to his death on the cross. But it also reminds the disciples of John that they have fallen into the trap of worshipping God’s laws and rules, instead of realizing that the Son of God is in their midst. They should be celebrating.

Jesus continues with the image of unshrunk cloth patching an old garment. As soon as it is washed, it will rip. And he adds the image of new wine in an old wineskin. As soon as it ferments, it will burst the container. In both these images, the clash of new and old tears the fabric apart. All is lost.

What is Jesus saying with these images? With the Pharisees, with the cloth and with the wineskins it is the same message and it is very clear. You can’t have a religion of mercy and compassion inside a set of laws that judge and condemn, isolate and reject.

Jesus has supper with Matthew because he must. He needs Matthew and sees the potential in him. If Matthew is willing to follow him, that is all Jesus needs to know. The rest is forgiven.

While the Pharisees roil with anger and judgement, Jesus is joyful with mercy. This is the Kingdom of Heaven come down and manifest in our midst. And when we act like Jesus in the same situation, with those around us, in our families or in our communities, or in our nations, whose behaviour calls out for judgement and condemnation, we too are agents of the Kingdom.

[Peter Mansell]

Thursday, May 28, 2020
Zechariah 4:1-14

The angel who talked with me came again, and wakened me, as one is wakened from sleep. He said to me, ‘What do you see?’ And I said, ‘I see a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it; there are seven lamps on it, with seven lips on each of the lamps that are on the top of it. And by it there are two olive trees, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.’ I said to the angel who talked with me, ‘What are these, my lord?’ Then the angel who talked with me answered me, ‘Do you not know what these are?’ I said, ‘No, my lord.’ He said to me, ‘This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts. What are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain; and he shall bring out the top stone amid shouts of “Grace, grace to it!”’

Moreover, the word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it. Then you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you. For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plummet in the hand of Zerubbabel.

‘These seven are the eyes of the Lord, which range through the whole earth.’ Then I said to him, ‘What are these two olive trees on the right and the left of the lampstand?’ And a second time I said to him, ‘What are these two branches of the olive trees, which pour out the oil through the two golden pipes?’ He said to me, ‘Do you not know what these are?’ I said, ‘No, my lord.’ Then he said, ‘These are the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth.’

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Zechariah 4:1-14 is one of those passages that illustrate how the inspired word of God can be tied to very particular issues and circumstances. In fact, so particular that, twenty-five centuries later, in our day, we have no clue as to what this is about! An angel talking about lampstands and bowls and olive trees and somebody called Zerubbabel just isn’t going to mean anything to us!
The temptation of course is to “skim” this material (of which there’s a considerable amount in the Bible) or to dismiss it out of hand as irrelevant and boring. If we’re going to resist this temptation, then we’ll need to pray for the grace to keep our minds open – open to the words and the images, open to finding out what they mean and why they were written and then, finally, open to what they may be saying to us here and now.

In other words, a passage like this reminds us that the Bible is a challenging book. It challenges us to really engage with it, to be open to read, reflect, study, explore and grow!

With this passage from Zechariah, some study helps us to know the context. It was written around 520 BCE, so about five hundred years before the birth of Jesus. At this point in the story of God’s people (a.k.a. the Israelites), they’ve recently returned from a long, hard exile to once more take up residence in the Promised Land. On coming home, they’ve found their beloved city of Jerusalem to be in ruins, including the famous Temple, the centre of their religious and communal life. Re-building it was going to be a huge task, long and expensive, and meanwhile the people had their own lives and that of their families to think about. The job of raising up a new world out of the wreckage of the old was not appealing. Prophets like Zechariah, however, felt called by God to focus everyone’s attention on exactly that.

Knowing everybody’s energy was at a low ebb, Zechariah described a revelation from an angel about a reservoir (the bowl on the lampstand) that is always filled with oil. The reservoir has seven “lips” or spouts, in the manner of the lamps of the ancient world. When these seven are lighted they represent, says the angel to Zechariah, “the eyes of the Lord, which range through the whole earth”.

As for the two olive trees on either side, that pour their oil into the reservoir, the angel says they are “the two anointed ones” who serve the Lord. These two are none other than the man with the funny name, Zerubbabel, the governor of the land and Joshua, who was the high priest at the time. It was these two who were leading the charge to re-build the Temple.

So what is Zechariah saying here? First of all, that God has not abandoned his sorely-tried people in their ruined land. God sees all, including them and all their struggles. Moreover, their leaders have God’s blessing and support. In trying to -re-build the centre of their worship and spiritual life, they are leading the people in the right direction and they will succeed. The people need to be intentional in being bound together in right relationship with God, with each other, and with the land God has given them, if they are to have a new future.

Now what might this mean for us today? Zechariah and the people lived in a time of misery, ruin and huge challenges. Well, that certainly sounds familiar! We live amidst global pandemic, climate change, poverty and war, our world lurching from one crisis to the next. The challenges facing us are enormous and many feel they have enough to do just trying to look after themselves and those they love. Others, though, are talking about, and working for, a so-called “new normal”, a new order of things marked by a new caring for one another and for the earth we share. Ultimately what is being sought is a change of heart, a new way of living together, of being human together.

In other words, we need to re-build a living spiritual centre to our lives, not a building like the Temple, but what it represents – the place that the Spirit has as the centre and foundation of everything we are and do, the one Love in which all live and through which all will have a new future.

Zechariah’s message is that we will succeed if we do this! In his day, just a few years after what he wrote, and against all expectations, the people did indeed build their Temple and they became established in the land. Let us build ours, not of brick and stone, but of lives lived in faithful and loving service, and the God who sees all and makes all things possible, will bless us with the new beginning we long for today.

[John Maine]

Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Ephesians 4:1-16

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said,

‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
he gave gifts to his people.’

(When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

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A couple of weeks ago a few of us gathered (online) to discuss the book Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans, her memoir, as the subtitle describes it, of “loving, leaving, and finding the church” (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015). In one funny and memorable scene, her husband says to her: “Seems to me that for you, evangelicalism is like the boyfriend you broke up with two years ago but whose Facebook page you still check compulsively” (p. 218). Each of us has a unique spiritual journey. Sometimes it is dramatic, full of twists and turns. Others are more gentle, and speak of gradual growth, deepening, and maybe sometimes boredom or dryness. (Even good movies have slow parts.) Some people embrace a new faith tradition or denomination with the zealousness of a new convert, while others might expend much emotional energy, like Held Evans, wrestling — even if it’s just in one’s mind — with the past. “The boyfriend you broke up with two years ago but whose Facebook page you still check compulsively.”

It’s not always easy being a part of a church, or ‘the’ Church. As soon as other human beings get involved, we’re bound to be disappointed from time to time, maybe, I wonder, due to the preponderance of specks in their eyes. I recall hearing Rowan Williams comment in a lecture once that, deep down we think that “church life would be SO MUCH easier if everyone else in the pews were more like ME.” Or, to move beyond the church, think about the toxic cesspools of the comment sections of social media posts and news stories. Ad hominem attacks are the norm. Though, I should say, balancing all this is a valuing of diversity, inclusivity, and tolerance both in the mainline churches and in society in general. It seems, however, that it’s difficult to move from tolerance (“putting up with”) to appreciation and love.

For a lot of people, especially those at the level of just tolerating Christianity, it’s a solo sport, like javelin-throwing. (You’re only accountable to, and dependant on yourself, and, conveniently, you can use your stick to impale the idiots.) But that comes from a very selective, non-incarnational reading of the Christian story that misses all the stuff about table fellowship, covenant, and community life (the essence of both the commandments and the epistles), and the worship life that climaxes in a holy banquet. What did we hear in last Sunday’s gospel? “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” We’re in this together. That’s our witness to the world, while we’re in it.

The author of this epistle implores the church community in Ephesus to live a life that includes toleration, and goes even further. This means living in a way marked by “humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The Church, reflecting the oneness of God, serves as an alternative to those who are “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine” and people’s scheming.

This doesn’t make community life easy. Truth be told, Rachel Held Evans had a lot more patience and esteem for some evangelical traditions and communities than I do. We won’t always have a rosy experience of Christian camaraderie, and deep ecumenism sometimes seems a distant dream. Some things are just out of our control. But we do have significant say on how we process things, and how we conduct ourselves. So we come again to the beginning of Ephesians 4: “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Rachel Held Evans follows on from there: “‘I will. I will. With God’s help, I will.’ In the silence that followed, it was as if all the amorphous vagaries of my faith coalesced into a single, tangible call: Repent. Break bread. Seek justice. Love neighbor. Christianity seemed at once the simplest and most impossible thing in the world. It seemed to me confirmed, sealed as the story of my life — that thing I’ll never shake, that thing I’ll always be” (p. 194).

She then quotes Lauren Winner’s father, in Winner’s memoir, Still. “What you promise when you are confirmed is not that you will believe this forever. What you promise when you are confirmed is that this is the story you will wrestle with forever” (p. 194).

Again, we turn to Ephesians: “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

[Matthew Kieswetter]

Tuesday, May 26, 2020
Ephesians 3:14-21

14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

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This passage is the ending of a long prayer for the readers that begins at Ephesians 1:17, and is briefly interrupted by a summary of Paul’s credentials and ministry (Ephesians 3:1-13). As noted in a previous Reflection (May 20, 2020), there is general agreement among biblical scholars that the author of Ephesians is not the apostle Paul himself, but a disciple of Paul who was intimately familiar with Paul’s thought and theology, and wrote this letter to the churches founded by Paul in Asia Minor 2 to 3 decades after Paul’s death.

The prayer ends with a doxology (vv. 20, 21) that likely sounds strangely familiar to Canadian Anglicans. It is, of course, the origin of the Doxology that follows the Prayer after Communion In the contemporary language Eucharistic Rite of the Book of Alternative Services (on p. 214):

Glory to God, whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to God from generation of generation, in the Church and in Christ Jesus, for ever and ever. Amen.

The two verses from Ephesians, or their more poetic BAS version form a very fitting ending to any prayer, not just the public Holy Eucharist, but our personal prayers also. I recommend to you ending your prayers with such a Doxology (Literally “Words of Praise”); it will shape your prayer as it literally forces you to realize that nothing is impossible with God, even what we cannot imagine, and it unites your praise of God with those gone before you, others praying as you pray, and those who will praise God in the future.

What of the earlier verses (vv. 14-19)? As I noted in my earlier Reflection, one of the possible ways to read Ephesians is as a Homily for Baptism. With that in mind, verse 14 relates in my mind to the start of our Service of Holy Baptism, where we state in an opening dialog that there is “One God and Father of all”. In this verse the author employs (in Greek) a play on words; “Pater” is the English “Father”, and “patria”, which can be taken to mean clan or tribe is translated into “family”. Thus this verse states that every “patria” everywhere, every family, has God the Father as its head, therefore “One God and Father of all.”

The remaining verses in this prayer can easily be read as praying for the gifts of baptism. “Strengthened in [our] inner being … through his Spirit”, “Christ [dwelling in our] hearts”, “being rooted and grounded in love”, “comprehend[ing] … the breadth and length and height and depth, [of the] the love of Christ” and being “filled with all the fullness of God”; isn’t that what we pray for those being baptized, and for ourselves, every time we attend a Service of Holy Baptism.

With all that in mind, (and if you can, having read through the BAS Service of Holy Baptism (https://www.anglican.ca/wp-content/uploads/BAS.pdf, p. 151), I invite you to return to the top of this Reflection, and read the passage again, slowly and prayerfully; pray it for yourself, for all in our St. Andrew’s Church family, for all faith communities everywhere, and for our world.

[Gerry Mueller]

Monday, May 25, 2020
Matthew 8:5-17

When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralysed, in terrible distress.’ And he said to him, ‘I will come and cure him.’ The centurion answered, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ And to the centurion Jesus said, ‘Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.’ And the servant was healed in that hour.

When Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever; he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she got up and began to serve him. That evening they brought to him many who were possessed by demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’

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This story uses language from two worlds. In the vertical world of the centurion, orders are given and obeyed up and down a chain of command. Fear of violent consequences makes this world work.

In the all-embracing world of Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven, everyone is equal. Jesus speaks to a soldier from the occupying army as an equal, a human, not as an oppressor. And he speaks with
compassion for master and servant. “Shall I come and heal him?”

The centurion does not talk down to Jesus. Instead, he defers to Jesus as his superior. In this story, the centurion has developed a faith and it allows him to step into Jesus’ world!

In the world of the centurion, he has many soldiers under him. Likely he has many servants. Their respect and obedience of him comes from his rank in the army. As he says, “I am a man under authority.” At his command, others come and go and do his bidding. But although he wields earthly power, he humbly comes to Jesus as his superior when it comes to matters of faith and healing.

Servants are bought and sold every day in the market place, but this man cares about his paralyzed servant, enough to seek healing. He declines Jesus’ offer to come to his home. Coming from the army, where he speaks a word and things happen, all he needs is Jesus’ to also speak a word and he believes healing will occur in the spiritual realm. This is the core of his faith.

And this is why Jesus is very excited about the centurion’s faith. It does not come from tradition or custom. He was not born into it. He came to it by himself, out of his own experience.

In contrast to this man’s humble faith, Jesus notes that members of the tribes of Israel will come home, assuming they are welcome at the Lord’s table but will be rejected.

I always wanted to draw a picture of those thrown out into the darkness weeping and gnashing their teeth, but never found time. Just as well. Negative church images are not popular nowadays. Too bad. Over the centuries there has been much great art of the damned.

The story continues in verse thirteen. The centurion’s servant is healed the moment Jesus said he was. I’m not sure Matthew checked the time out, but likely he did. Certainly, it proves the centurion’s faith and Jesus’ superiority in spiritual matters. It’s a detail that strengthens faith in us.

Jesus continues to heal that day, including Peter’s mother-in-law and many demon-possessed and sick. The detail of Peter’s mother-in-law getting up to wait on Jesus tells us she was truly healed. I know it’s an act of love, but would have given her the rest of the day off.

Matthew finishes this story with a quotation from Isaiah regarding the Suffering Servant. Does the suffering servant actually heal in this quotation, or just take on the sins of the tribe, in much the same way as the older Hebrews placed all their sins on a lamb and drove him into the desert – or later sacrificed him on an altar?

There are so many links between the Suffering Servant and Jesus that it’s not worth quibbling about it. Too many Christians have adopted the Suffering Servant motif to fight the tradition now. But, while Jesus does take on suffering on the cross for us, in this story, he is a healer, totally in command of his powers. And those who are on the receiving end of his word or his touch, know it.

In Sunday School, I was taught that this story taught us to believe Jesus at his word. After the Thomas stories at Easter, where Thomas needed proof, it’s a faith story we were all to take to heart.

But, what’s my takeaway now? I circle back to Jesus’ world, the idea of the Kingdom, where anyone with faith, including a feared centurion can speak to the Lord and ask anything and it will be granted. Because he loves us all.

[Peter Mansell]

Sunday, May 24, 2020 (Jerusalem Sunday)
Hebrews 12:18-29

[Today’s reflection is provided by Justin Cheng, rector of All Saints’, South Burnaby, in the Diocese of New Westminster. Justin and Matthew studied together at Trinity College. In his time as an M. Div. student Justin served in the Diocese of Jerusalem, thus this is a meaningful connection for Jerusalem Sunday.]

You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. (For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.’ Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’) But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.’ This phrase ‘Yet once more’ indicates the removal of what is shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.

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Hebrews 12:18-29 alludes to the experience of the ancient Israelites on Mount Sinai. To refresh our memory, the people of God have left the slavery of Egypt and has arrived at this mountain. There, Moses their leader went on top of the mountain to encounter the living God and receive the Law, the definitive document that would constitute the people. The writer of Hebrews draws upon this story to tell his readers that they are one with the ancient people of Israel in encountering the holy mystery we call God.

For me, this passage warns against our tendency to domesticate God, to try to limit God according to our wants and desires. I think all of us either consciously or unconsciously assume that God is very much like us, as in God supports our politics, God supports our theology, God supports the structures, rules and customs that make us feel comfortable. It can be unsettling to think of God as someone who is dramatically different from us, who refuses to accept that our ways and understandings are the last word.

Might we be open to the God who not only comforts us, but discomforts us? Might we be open to the God who challenges as well as gives us assurance? It can be scary to encounter this God who might wash away our assumptions and biases, who does away with the things we find comfortable. But scary or not, we will discover that when God discomforts us, God also leads us to grow. Growth may seem painful in the short term, but in the long run, growth is what makes us flourish.

Where is God discomforting you today? Where is God challenging you today? And are we willing to be open to grow and change?

[Justin Cheng]