Rest Easy?


Today’s readings:
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Deuteronomy 9:23-10:5, Hebrews 4:1-10, John 3:16-21

Rest requires a lot of work.

In the fourth chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews, the evangelist compares the rest that waits for us in God’s presence to the rest experienced on the Sabbath. A first-century Jewish audience would have thought of a Sabbath very differently than we modern Christians think of a traditional Sunday. The command to honor the Sabbath was not merely a suggestion to take it easy – it was a command (actually a whole lot of them) about exactly what could and could not be done. Because so many types of activities were explicitly and implicitly forbidden, lots of things – such as meals, stove fires, and candles – had to be in place before sundown on Friday. Without proper preparation, one would spend the Sabbath hungry, cold, and in the dark.

That’s the difference between idleness and rest. Idleness is inactivity when and where there should be activity. Idleness now can actually make it almost impossible to rest comfortably later. Proper rest re-energizes our bodies, fuels our creativity, and focuses our spirits. When we don’t prepare time and space for such rest – when mundane demands creep into the space and gobble up the time – we end up more tired than when we began.

Just because we aren’t toiling doesn’t mean we’re resting; vacations can be exhausting! And rest isn’t necessarily unproductive. Jews observing the Sabbath can share festive meals together, take walks, read, sing, pray, play games, and make love. Each of our lists of restful activities may vary, but we still need to be intentional about them: cramming them into random spare moments reduces their benefit.

The author of Hebrews suggests that if we want to enter eternal rest with God, we ought to be preparing now. There’s no set checklist to accomplish before the time comes, nor a minimum number of brownie points to acquire. Through grace is given freely, the choices we make now prepare us to better receive it. Let’s prepare so as not to leave any unfinished business, any nagging worldly concerns, when that day of rest is finally offered to us.

Comfort: You are allowed to rest.

Challenge: Be deliberate about your periods of rest. Mark specific times/daysRest  for it on your calendar.

Prayer: Loving God, I look forward to the day when I rest in your presence. Amen.

Discussion: Are you able to rest/relax? If so, how? If not, why?

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Give It Up


Daily readings:
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Jonah 3:1-4:11, Hebrews 12:1-14, Luke 18:9-14

Ash Wednesday readings:
Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 51:1-17, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“What are you giving up for Lent?”

Every year this is a hot topic among the Sunday School crowd. Many children (and some adults) give up candy or other treats. Lately the social media “fast” has been gaining popularity as people log out for forty days.

Other people, rather than (or in addition to) giving something up, add an activity they find meaningful. Some set aside extra time for prayer or other devotional pursuits.  Fans of efficiency might piggyback personal improvements they’ve been wanting to make, such as diet or exercise, onto the season.

Whether we’re subtracting or adding, Lent centers on discipline and sacrifice as a means of spiritual enrichment. However, it’s easy to let the means – skipping a chocolate bar or committing a daily charitable act – become the end. The purpose of Lenten activities is to prepare for Holy Week and Easter, when we re-commit ourselves to the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. Psalm 51 tells us: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart.”

Regarding sacrifice and fasting, Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Matthew: “whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting […] put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret.”

It’s not so much what we give up, but how we do it. Lent is not goal-oriented; we aren’t meant to be “new and improved” at the end of it. Lent is an opportunity for sacrificial excavation – for clearing space in our lives meant to be re-occupied not by a sense of accomplishment but by the presence of Christ.

What are you giving up for Lent?

It may taste like chocolate or spend like a dollar, but it’s whatever takes up room where Christ could be. Ego. Pride. Self-righteousness. Anger. Fear. Greed. Christ emptied himself unto death for us. Let us sweep the ashes of death from our hearts to make room for the life he brings.

Comfort: Though it seems far, the day of the Lord is near.

Challenge: This Lenten season, make a meaningful sacrifice.

Prayer: Loving God, all that I have and all that I am is yours. Amen.

Discussion: What makes a sacrifice meaningful?

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Fertile Ground


Today’s readings:
Psalms 15; 147:1-11, Isaiah 44:24-45:7, Ephesians 5:1-14, Mark 4:1-20

In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus tells the story of a man who scatters seed across several types of ground. Only one type is good soil where the seed may find purchase and bloom. The seed, Jesus explains to the disciples, is the Word and the different types of ground represent the hearts and convictions of those who hear it.

As Christians, we believe we are the good soil where God’s word takes root and “bears good fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” That may very well be true, but it may also be true that God hasn’t yet sown all the word He has for us. Does any serious farmer reap one successful harvest then stop tending the plot? Of course not. There’s a lot of work that goes into preparing for the next one. Are we still fertile ground for the new things God might do, or have we borne all the fruit we care to?

Good soil requires a lot of care. It needs to be tilled regularly. It needs water. It needs fertilizer. It needs to be weeded so its nutrients aren’t needlessly depleted. Sometimes it needs to lie fallow for a season to be restored to health.

In other words, good soil is no accident. We may have gotten lucky once – or perhaps more accurately, been the beneficiaries of God’s grace – by being born or reborn into the faith, but are we putting in the necessary work to prepare for the time when God would scatter new seed our way?

The insights resulting from prayer and study help us keep our faith freshly turned over. Worship and praise feed and water our souls. Self-examination and confession reveal the weeds we’ve let overrun our hearts and habits. Being open to new information helps us understand how we best function in a changing environment. And rest – the kind of rest that occurs only when we finally turn our worries over to God – gives us the strength we need to be fruitful during the more inhospitable seasons of life.

When we do this work, we are better prepared to receive and nurture whatever God throws our way: a new mission, a new journey, a new understanding. They can sink their roots deep into our hearts, and grow to their potential. The sower is generous with the seed; let’s give it somewhere to land.

Comfort: God is always doing something new.

Challenge: Select a spiritual discipline, such as fasting or prayer, and stick to it for a month. Note any changes and growth it promotes in you faith life.

Prayer: God of new life, I will do my best to be ready to receive your Word. Amen.

Discussion: When have you felt God pulling or pushing you to grow in a new direction?

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Be Prepared


Today’s readings:
Psalms 24; 150, Isaiah 13:1-13, Hebrews 12:18-29, John 3:22-30

As we reach the mid-way point in our season of Advent, today’s scripture readings appropriately focus on preparation.

Psalm 24, written a thousand years before Christ’s birth, uses the metaphor of a king returning victorious from battle to describe the Lord assuming his place among his people. Not written about Jesus specifically, this psalm sets the stage for the hoped-for Day of the Lord.

Isaiah also describes the Day of the Lord (prophetically speaking, there were several such days), but from a differing viewpoint. Rather than describing a glorious victory, Isaiah warned the Babylonians of the destruction awaiting them for turning away from God and oppressing God’s people.

The letter to the Hebrews, written after Christ’s death, warned its audience to listen for the word of God so they would be prepared for Christ’s return. Its author claims that on the Day of the Lord his voice will shake heaven and earth, and he will return like a “consuming fire” burning away unrighteousness.

Our passage from John is more gentle. It tells us how John the Baptist willingly stepped aside when Jesus – the one for whom he had been preparing the way – began his ministry in earnest. John was content to have played his role faithfully, and sought no further adulation. Unfortunately, retirement would not be kind to John; because he had angered too many powerful people by telling the truth, he would soon be executed.

As common-sense as “failing to plan is planning to fail” may sound, we also have to accept that events of our lives, community, and globe are frequently unpredictable. The Jews and Babylonians, despite prophecy, weren’t ready for what happened. The audience of Hebrews was preparing for Christ’s literal return, but had to keep going when that didn’t happen. Like John the Baptist, we must be content with having faithfully done our part. We can’t control whether the world responds accordingly. When the Day of the Lord seems distant and unrighteousness all too near, our best preparation occurs in our own hearts, where God provides us the faith and strength to face what we must.

Comfort: Relying on God is the best preparation …

Challenge: … but be ready for God to ask you to do some challenging things.

Prayer: Loving God, I have prepared for you a room in my heart; may you dwell within me always . Amen.

Discussion: Isaiah and Hebrews both mention mount Zion – Isaiah as a spot of military-like victory, and Hebrews as a place triumphant through grace and mercy. How do you think about these contrasting visions of the Day of the Lord?

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Blink and you’ll miss it.


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 24; 150, Isaiah 1:1-9, 2 Peter 3:1-10, Matthew 25:1-13

The world ended today. Did you notice? Probably not … if it wasn’t your world. But someone’s did. Someone’s divorce was final. Someone received a terminal diagnosis. Someone’s home was bombed to the ground with loved ones inside. The world ends every day.

We all long for a day when things will be just and fair and simply … better. We’ve never been patient about it either. Today’s letter from Peter dealt with both those who used the promise of Christ’s return for their own gain, and scoffers who said if it hadn’t happened yet it wasn’t going to – and only a few decades had passed since Christ was physically among them. Was the author’s response that to God “a thousand years are like one day” any more satisfying then than it is centuries later? It seems we are left to conclude that Jesus and those who claimed he would return are simply wrong. But if the world ends every day … maybe Jesus returns every day too.

Parables about the kingdom of heaven, like Matthew’s tale of the bridesmaids and the oil lamps, are never only about some future “rapture” or judgment; they also instruct us on what the kingdom is like right now. Unlike the foolish bridesmaids, we prepare for the groom’s return not just because we fear being excluded from the banquet, but because delays and midnight arrivals are par for the course. Jesus returns when someone accepts a 3 a.m. call from an abused spouse and offers a safe place to stay. Jesus returns when a Hospice volunteer sits with someone who is afraid. Jesus returns when combatants choose reconciliation over revenge. Our lamps must be filled with the oil of compassion and ready to light when the phone rings, the stranger cries, or the enemy uncurls a fist. Otherwise when Christ comes calling we – like the foolish bridesmaids – will be left in our own darkness, having missed the opportunity to join the groom and represent him to the world.

Today the world ended. Today Christ returned. If your lamp is full, you’ll get to see it all again tomorrow.

Comfort: Jesus returns every day.

Challenge: Look out for opportunities to show the Christ’s love to people in crisis.

Prayer: Loving and merciful God, I thank you for daily renewal. Amen.

Discussion: When have you felt like the world ended?

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Dress for Spiritual Success


Today’s readings (click below to open in new window/tab):
Psalms 111; 150, 1 Kings 3:5-14, Colossians 3:12-17, John 6:41-47

Whether you leave your house dressed in a bathrobe, a suit and tie, or a wedding dress, it’s the same you underneath. Despite employer dress codes, you are no less competent on casual Friday than you are when dressed for a board meeting at 8:00 a.m. on Tuesday. However there are times when what you wear is crucial. A nurse treating infectious patients must wear protective clothing. Hikers need footwear to provide both comfort and stability. Dancers are hindered if their clothes do not allow freedom of movement.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul says they should clothe themselves “with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” and “love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Some clothes communicate how we intend to interact with the world. Opposing teams and referees all wear different uniforms for a reason. Someone can say “I’m a professional football player” but until they’re suited up and on the field, they’re not playing professional ball. We can quote scripture and doctrine all day long, but if we haven’t put on a Christian attitude, why would anyone believe us?  Sure, meekness might itch a little and sometimes we can’t wait to slip out of that patience at the end of the day, but they are part of the dress code for the best job in the world.

The good news is, once you’ve broken them in, they are pretty comfortable. Kindness feels less like a tie choking off your breathing and more like a scarf keeping you warm. Humility changes from a girdle squeezing in your less virtuous bulges to a support that helps you keep your back straight and head high. None of us are able to display Paul’s list of virtues all the time, but the more conscious we are about putting them on, the more they become part of us, and the more prepared we feel.

These garments will protect you. They will provide comfort and stability. They will give you confidence to move freely in a world that doesn’t always understand what you’re doing. Dressing for success doesn’t have to cost a dime.

Comfort: Love of God and neighbor is the most beautiful thing you can wear.

Challenge: As you are getting dressed for the day, be intentional about putting on your garments of faith as well.

Prayer: Loving God, I will clothe myself in faith to please you and serve your world. Amen.

Discussion: What’s your favorite item of clothing and why?

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Spiritual Exercise


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 147:12-20, Isaiah 65:1-12, 1 Timothy 4:1-16, Mark 12:13-27

In his first letter to Timothy, Paul encourages the disciples to “train yourselves in Godliness.” The Greek word translated as “train” is also the word for physical exercise. Like physical health, spiritual health is something we can improve with the proper nourishment and exercise.

A good doctor steers people away from fad diets and workout regimens that promise much and deliver little – or worse, cause damage. As our spiritual doctor, Paul warns the disciples to avoid fads like asceticism and celibacy which distract from true spiritual well-being. Instead he prescribes the basics of scripture, the teaching and conduct that will nourish them best. Today we need to be equally as careful to avoid trendy practices and beliefs that distract us from what Jesus really taught us. Just as there is no magic body wrap that will melt away love handles in your sleep, there is no substitute for regular spiritual discipline.

Spiritual and physical fitness have other similarities. Both result in incremental improvements over extended periods of time. As one-time (or even one-time-a-month) trips to the gym won’t turn your fat into muscle, neither will isolated or sporadic instances of prayer or other disciplines develop your spiritual muscles. Furthermore, exercise of either variety is performed to develop strength and endurance. No one who begins a marathon without first putting in the proper time to train will make it to the end, and no one who waits until a crisis to pray is likely to endure spiritually. We exercise not for what we need today, but for what we plan to accomplish in the future.

Finally, we must exercise for the right reasons. Wanting to look good for others is a bad motivator for working out, and rarely leads to sustained success. Practicing spiritual disciplines to impress others or to get God to love you more is also poor motivation. You can’t make anyone love you, and God already loves you as much as He ever will. Diet and physical exercise are about developing healthy relationships with our bodies, and spiritual exercise and discipline are about healthy relationships with our God.

Comfort: Spiritual health, like a marathon, begins with a single step.

Challenge: Find a spiritual discipline (prayer, meditation, scripture, etc.) that works for you, and practice it regularly.

Prayer: God of strength, I dedicate myself to developing spiritual health. Amen.

Discussion: How do you feel about exercise?

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Prepare Ye!

Speaking of preparation, here’s a flashback that always makes me feel joyous.

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


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.