Give It A Rest

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 148, Exodus 16:23-36, 1 Peter 3:13-4:6, John 16:1-15


The first Sabbath (except maybe for the day God rested) occurred shortly after the Israelites fled Egypt. The people began to complain because they were thirsty, so God provided water. They complained because they were hungry, so God provided manna on the ground each morning. They complained because they weren’t eating meat, so God sent quail in the evenings. All that complaining was a lot of work. Moses told the people that on the sixth day of the week, God would provide twice as much food as normal so they could rest on the seventh day; no one was to go looking for food. Of course some people went looking, so God asked Moses: “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions?”

We might cluck at the disobedient nature of the Israelites, but these were a people traumatized by centuries of oppression. They barely knew God and had not yet learned to trust Him again, so each step toward freedom seemed to be a step toward annihilation. Over the next forty years of wandering, the Sabbath became essential to their national and religious identity. For Jews a Sabbath is more than a day of rest – it is a day of holiness set apart from ordinary days. Christians have mostly lost that sense of Sabbath holiness. We may go to church, but we also prepare family dinners, mow the lawn, and crowd the mall. For many, Sunday is a day to accomplish tasks left undone earlier in the week. Businesses cater to our demand for convenient hours, but “convenience” has robbed us of any excuse to rest.

Paradoxically, preparing for a day of rest and holiness is hard work. It requires planning and little extra push just as we are hoping to wind down for the weekend. But what value might we find in actually observing a Sabbath? Is there anyone who couldn’t use more rest? Imagine how our lives might change if once a week we devoted an entire day to re-energizing our relationship to God and the world. Jesus observed the Sabbath. Maybe we should consider it.

Comfort: The Sabbath does not exist to deny people, but to replenish them.

Challenge: Create space in your life for a Sabbath.

Prayer: Merciful God, thank you for the gift of rest. Amen.

Discussion: What do you think would be most likely to distract you from a Sabbath? What benefits might you find?

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That Lived-In Feeling

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 108; 150; Jeremiah 44:15-30; Acts 18:24-19:7; Luke 10:25-37


What if cleanliness really isn’t next to Godliness?

Jesus once told a parable about an unclean spirit which had departed from a person and wandered aimlessly for a while, only to return and find its old abode as accommodating as  an empty house, all swept and orderly. Of course it moved back in, and brought friends with it so that the home – the person – was worse off than before.

Maybe the word we’re looking FOR isn’t cleanliness so much as … tidiness.

This parable can be read on different levels. One is the danger of believing that once we’ve solved a spiritual problem, we are out of danger. Relapses – addictive, behavioral, or otherwise – occur when we stop being vigilant. When we’ve created chaos in the life of ourselves or someone else, regaining order is an important step, but it’s the beginning, not the end. Order not put to a purpose is like an uninhabited house; it will fill up with something, so we better pay attention to what that something is or we end up with unwelcome guests. Think of the “dry drunk” home, where the shelves have been cleared of liquor bottles, but dysfunctions both new and ongoing fill the space.

On another level, it is about the hollowness of order in the institutional church. The religious leaders kept the house of the Lord tidy by enforcing the letter of the law, but neglected the spirit. Demons of apathy took up residence. A church that deals with our sinful nature by prioritizing orderliness above wholeness may glitter like a gem, yet it’s not welcoming to those who need it most but can’t meet its superficial standards. Its rituals and sacrifices are like a stench before the Lord, who asks us to take in the unwashed beggar, the wailing widow, and the unruly orphan – and that’s going to be untidy no matter how much plastic is on the furniture. Our kitchens will fill with dirty dishes. Shoes will pile up in the doorway. They are not the disruption, but the mission. Together we learn to find a home for all of it in God’s house.

A house is designed to be inhabited, otherwise it’s just a shrine to a life that was. Shrines contain history; we worship a God who is present and living.

Comfort: Some of that messiness in your life is actually holy.

Challenge: If you are prone to clutter, create a little more order. If you have a place for everything and everything in its place, commit those things to a purpose.

Prayer: For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken. (Psalm 62:1-2)

Discussion: What distinguishes a holy mess from mere clutter? Which are you prone to?

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Holiness and Homicide

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Deuteronomy 19:1-7, James 5:13-18, Luke 12:22-31


In Deuteronomy, God instructs Israel to position three cities in regions so no one will be too far from one. These Cities of Refuge are for people who commit unintentional homicide. Who should seek such sanctuary? Deuteronomy elaborates:

Suppose someone goes into the forest with another to cut wood, and when one of them swings the ax to cut down a tree, the head slips from the handle and strikes the other person who then dies; the killer may flee to one of these cities and live. But if the distance is too great, the avenger of blood in hot anger might pursue and overtake and put the killer to death, although a death sentence was not deserved, since the two had not been at enmity before.

That’s … oddly specific.

Three other Cities of Refuge are established earlier in Deuteronomy, but their asylum-seekers had to be willing to undergo a trial. The roads to these cities were well-maintained and unusually wide for easy access.

If holiness is a condition of being set apart from the world to serve God, these places were holy. Throughout Western history, churches have also been recognized (if not always legally) as holy places of asylum. One famous (though fictional) example is Esmerelda seeking sanctuary in Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral in Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Of late, the idea of sanctuary – of intentionally safe places in general – has been highly politicized. Sanctuary seems indulgent or dangerous … until we need it ourselves. Deuteronomy reminds us what is legal does not define what is just, and kindness is not weakness. Circumstances matter. Sometimes pausing to consider them – even if in the end they do not favor the asylum-seeker – is an act of faith. If possible, shouldn’t the church and its members offer mercy when law and circumstance have denied a higher justice?

Residents of the Cities of Refuge undoubtedly had mixed feelings about harboring fugitives, and some fugitives undoubtedly took advantage, but the need for a holy place transcended doubt and abuse. Living in the Kingdom requires us to accept its grace even for the fugitive.

Comfort: Offering safety makes it easier to seek it.

Challenge: Watch the short video below to learn more about the differences between refugees, asylees, and immigrants.

Prayer: God of peace, open my arms and heart to the stranger. Amen.

Discussion: Sanctuary isn’t just for fugitives or refugees. Where do you see a need for sanctuary in the world?

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Symbolic

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Daniel 5:1-12, 1 John 5:1-12, Luke 4:38-44


Symbols are important to us. There are countless United States flags, from cheap plastic ones made overseas to quality domestic products purchased by our armed forces, but desecrating even one – while legal – is an affront to the millions of people who have served under it. “Desecrate” is generally reserved for the defilement of holy objects, and if any secular item rises to that criteria, it is the flag. Like other holy objects, the flag has rules for handling, display, and disposal.

The gold and silver temple fixtures of the captive Jews were locked away in Babylonian vaults. One day Belshazzar, successor to King Nebuchadnezzar, got drunk and had his servants retrieve them “and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them.” Capturing the vessels was one thing; desecrating them was another. A hand appeared and the terrified king watched it write mysterious words on the palace wall. He was desperate to know their meaning, so his queen reminded him of Daniel’s gifts for interpretation.

An attack on a symbol is an attack on an identity. It plucks the raw nerves of tribalism under our veneer of civilization. It spits in the eye of our existence. We know our nation is more than a pattern on cloth. We understand a printed Bible is mass produced for profit. The body of slain soldier is tragic but still just a body. Yet our enemies know desecrating any of these will incense us, possibly to recklessness.

Symbols can also be personal. That pair of soda-cap cufflinks Uncle Ted left to your cousin may seem silly to you, but they may symbolize a deep bond between parent and child.

When we deal with friends and enemies, let’s be sensitive to what symbols might mean. Let’s avoid mocking, exploiting, or desecrating things that aren’t important to us but have meaning for others. And when we are offended, let’s remember a symbol is never more important than what or who it represents; our defense of it should not betray it. Our symbol is the empty cross – but our savior is not there.

Comfort: Symbols, used properly, can be powerful and motivational.

Challenge: Symbols, used improperly, can be manipulative and dangerous.

Prayer: Gracious God, teach me to think critically about symbols and ideas, and to value them only as much as they glorify you. Amen.

Discussion: Read this article on flag etiquette. What do you think about the flag being incorporated into clothing?

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