Yoke and Unburden

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, Proverbs 7:1-27, 1 John 5:13-21, Matthew 11:25-30


A yoke, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a wooden bar or frame by which two draft animals (as oxen) are joined at the heads or necks for working together.” When Jesus began his ministry, the people of Israel were still yoked to the Mosaic law and its heavy-handed application. Not only was this law burdensome on its own, the leaders had come to use it as a tool for oppressing the poor and the downtrodden.

When Jesus told his disciples, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” he was inviting them to hitch themselves instead to the divine love of God he brought to earth. Instead of being tethered to an unyielding law that dragged them along mercilessly to the inevitable grave, they could be partnered with forgiveness and mercy.

Note that Jesus did not offer to unyoke them entirely. Ultimately we are all yoked to something, and that something helps determine the direction we travel and how heavy our burden. What are you yoked to? Maybe it’s a career that drags you along at breakneck pace. Or maybe it’s an addiction that grows heavier and heavier with each step. It could be something as beautiful as a family, but even that can take us where we’d rather not be, and the burden can be heavy. If we are yoked to self-interest, the burden may seem light but pivoting on only one point leads us to travel a tight and pointless circle.

Whatever you’re yoked to, do you like the direction it pulls you? Does the burden it places on you wear you down or build you up? When we yoke ourselves to Christ, he will steer us toward faith, but never force us. A gentle tug of conscience is all that’s needed to pull us back on the path.

No matter what ties us down, Christ offers something better. We can still have a career and a family and many other pleasant and meaningful things in our lives, but Christ will guide us through them, rather than let them steer us. We’re all tilling the same field; how we’re yoked determines whether it is killing or sustaining us.

Comfort: Following Jesus does not limit us, but frees us.

Challenge:  Meditate on what you are yoked to. As yourself whether it’s the right thing.

Prayer: God of hope, I will follow where you lead me. Amen.

Discussion: What are you yoked to? Is it something you should free yourself from?

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Jesus and Abraham

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 65; 147:1-11, Malachi 1:1, 6-14, James 3:13-4:12, Luke 17:11-19


James wrote:

You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

Few of us resort to murder, but unhealthy cravings drive us to acquire more than we need, and part with less than we should. When we lack necessities – food, water, safety – we may resort to emotional, political, or physical violence. If we have the basics, James advises to ask not for objects of personal enrichment, but things we can use toward the betterment of the Kingdom. It’s a win-win when we learn to crave things we can use to serve those in need.

Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” –illustrated as a stratified pyramid – describes motivations for behavior and growth. According to Maslow, we must satisfy lower needs before we can aspire to higher ones. The lowest Physiological level includes food, water, etc. The next highest is Safety. The middle one is Love/belonging. Esteem and Self-actualization top the pyramid. The higher the level, the fewer people achieve it.

If we expect a need will never be met, we may be spiritually stunted. In a village between Samaria and Galilee, Jesus encountered ten people with leprosy, a lifelong sentence of rejection. Forbidden from drawing near, they called to Jesus from a distance: “Have mercy on us.” He told them to show themselves to the priests. On the way all were healed. Only one, a Samaritan man, returned to thank Jesus. Not only had Jesus restored this man’s health, he restored the possibility of love, belonging, and all that might follow.

That sense of love and belonging is the bridge between our base needs and our higher selves. Sometimes we need to offer someone ordinary bread from our own table before they can cross over to Christ’s table for the bread of life. If you’re not sure which to share when, ask God for both.

Comfort: Your needs are important to God.

Challenge: You may need to learn to distinguish needs from cravings.

Prayer: God of abundance, I ask only for what will equip me to serve you. Amen.

Discussion: What is something you really wanted but didn’t get? How did you handle it?

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Big Rocks

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, Nahum 3:8-19, Revelation 13:11-18, Luke 12:32-48


Dr. Stephen Covey tells a story about a professor trying to teach his students a life lesson. He puts some large rocks in a jar until no more will fit. Everyone agrees the jar looks full, but he pulls out some gravel and pours as much as he can to settle between the rocks. Everyone again agrees the jar looks full, so he pulls out some sand and pours it in to fill every last bit of space. The point of the story is not that you can always fit more in, but that you have to start with the big stuff.

Jesus beat Dr. Covey to the point by about two thousand years when he said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Faith is a big rock, but because we know God is always going to be there, it’s easy to think we can drop it into the jar of life at any time. While we delay, the less important things fill our lives like sand pouring into an hourglass. We say, “I will have time for mission projects after work settles down” or “I will give to charity after my car is paid off.” Except work never settles down, and there’s always another bill to pay, so before we know it the jar is topped off and the big rocks never make it in.

Most of us aren’t prepared for how busy and difficult life can get, and in the heat of the moment we mistake the urgent for the important. Intentions mean nothing if we don’t prioritize them. When there’s a discrepancy between what we say is important, and what we devote our time and resources to, we better examine the contents of our jar or the content of our heart. If good intentions pave the proverbial road to hell, it’s a road paved in sand and gravel.

It’s not too late. Christ has a fresh, new jar waiting for you. Let go of the sand that filled the old one, and let him show you where to find the big rocks.

Comfort: Being intentional about the big things, and the small things will fall in place.

Challenge: Do a time study of your week. Are you spending time where you think you are? Where you think you should be?

Prayer: Lord of Heaven and Earth, I will honor you with the first fruits of my time, my talents, and my treasure. Amen.

Discussion: Is there a story – Biblical or otherwise – that leaves you wondering what happens next?

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Productivity

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 88; 148, Micah 6:1-8, Revelation 9:13-21, Luke 10:38-42


Search “productivity” on Amazon.com, and you’ll get more than 32,000 results. A few decades ago modern conveniences like microwaves, dishwashers, and computers promised to free us from the drudgery of labor. In reality, most of us have crammed that extra time, both at work and at home, with yet more tasks. In many industries productivity is measured in increments of seconds, and we learn to judge ourselves in terms of efficiency. The past was not necessarily better, but it was certainly simpler. Or was it?

When Jesus entered a certain village, Martha invited him into her home. Her sister, Mary sat at his feet and listened to what he had to say. Martha, distracted by many tasks, asked why Jesus didn’t seem to care she was doing all the work by herself. Jesus told her: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Remember that Martha extended the invitation. We don’t know what her specific tasks were, but they probably included what she thought were efforts to be a good hostess. Ironically, that seemed to involve everything but spending time with her guest. Was she really resentful of Mary, or was she frustrated that she couldn’t shrug off her own slavishness to productivity? We never learn how Martha responded, but one can imagine a moment of stunned silence as she realized she was complaining about a problem of her own making.

After we invite Christ into our lives, do we choose the one thing or the distractions? Is the bulk of our time at church spent tending the building or the flock? Are we too busy making sure people know we are Christian to actually model Christ? Is our prayer time filled with words or silence?

There is always plenty to be done, and we must make time for the doing, but we must also remember the doing is not more important than the being: being in the presence of God and God’s children.

Comfort: You can slow down. You can even stop once in a while.

Challenge: Make a list of the things you do simply because you think other people expect you to. What could you cross off?

Prayer: Eternal God, teach me to be mindful and present. Amen.

Discussion: In what ways have you created unnecessary work for yourself?

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Questions That Matter

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 116; 147:12-20, Deuteronomy 3:18-28, Romans 9:19-33, Matthew 24:1-14


In Matthew 24, Jesus begins to talk about his eventual return. He speaks about what signs and trials the disciples can expect before the “end of the age.” Despite expectations of his earliest followers, it didn’t happen quickly, and ever since some Christians have spent great effort assembling world events like pieces of an end-times jigsaw puzzle. Others insist on creating a rift between science and religion, pitting evolution against creationism. Is it possible to spend so much time focusing on the beginning and the end that we lose sight of the middle – the only time we can actually know?

While knowledge is important on its own merit, it can be a mistake to hang our faith on specific, unknowable questions, or to judge whether someone else is “our kind” of Christian based on their answers. So what sort of faith questions should we be asking ourselves and each other? Evaluating them against another question might help: Will the answer affect my faith or how I live my life? Developing a relationship with Christ; feeding the hungry; sharing the Good News: none of these depend on arguments for or against evolution, or whether the end is nigh. A life lived in love, justice and mercy transcends apologetics and refutations. Defense of a certain idea or school of thought can easily become an idol substituted for true faith. Hundreds of end time predictions have been wrong. What do we suppose the people who pinned their faith on these predictions did the day after the world ended?

Jesus did talk about the beginning and the end, but the greater part of his lessons was about the middle – about living in right relationship with God and each other. Shouldn’t we spend our limited time and energy on the things Jesus emphasized? Endless debate doesn’t clothe the naked or comfort the sick. If Jesus does show up tomorrow, we might rather be caught doing what he told us to do.

So here’s a question: what can we do for the least of our brothers and sisters? The answer matters to Jesus and to us.

Comfort: We don’t need all the answers to follow Jesus.

Challenge: The next time someone wants to engage you in divisive theological debate, instead invite her/him to share in works of mercy.

Prayer: Gracious and Merciful God, lead me always to the right questions. Amen.

Discussion: Are you able to confidently say: “I don’t know?” Why or why not?

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