Hold Fast to What is Good

The next prompt in Writing in the Margins:

As Romans 12 continues, in verses 9-18 we read a litany of specific practices that are shaped by scripture.  In your margins, choose one you want to practice.  Write in your margin a specific place where you might lie out this scriptural discipline.

I love this passage.  It just makes me happy!  It seems like I’ve heard it at a lot of weddings recently.  It’s a long passage, so I wrote it out on copy paper and taped it into the Bible:

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The practice that comes most easily to me is “Rejoice with those who rejoice.  Weep with those who weep.”  It feels like this is written into my DNA.  The verse “Never be wise in your own sight” spoke to me, too, especially after my embarrassing discovery that I’ve been completely missing the point of the fourth commandment for most of my life.  And, of course, “Let love be genuine” is of primary importance!  But in light of my recent study of the Sabbath, I’ll choose “hold fast to what is good.”  Here’s my margin note:

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Lord of the Sabbath

The next prompt from Writing in the Margins:

Romans 12:1-2 offers insight into transformed lives.  Reflect on the text in your margin.  What needs to change in your life to live into this message?

The passage is:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind that by testing you may discern the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

The first thing that came to mind for me as I reflected on what needs to change in my life was the Sabbath.  Perhaps, I was still traumatized by reading the story from Numbers of a man was stoned to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath in my rather morbid review of stoning.  I started thinking:  “Maybe Sunday should not be my regular laundry day!”  I do my best to make it to church every Sunday and whenever I teach my preschoolers about the Ten Commandments I tell the children what I heard growing up:  “We honor the Sabbath by coming to church.”  But we come to church on the first day of the week, not the seventh?  And I’ve never been good about taking either the seventh or the first day to rest.  This seemed like a good opportunity to “test Scripture and discern the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”  Since I already illustrated this verse, I decided to do something totally different in this post, a whole Bible study on the topic of the Sabbath!  (Warning sign for crazy long post!)

As I studied and illustrated the topic of the Sabbath, I felt like the whole Bible came into better focus for me, particularly the work and message of Jesus.   I used to think of the Sabbath as something only a legalist would try to understand, but I don’t see it that way anymore.  How to best keep the Sabbath was part of the prophetic message of Jesus.  It now seems clear to me that what Jesus taught about the Sabbath increased the tension between him and the religious authorities and ultimately precipitated his death on the cross.  The message the Bible teaches about the Sabbath is deeply relevant to our always busy, never resting, weary world.

I always use Google to search for images related to each Bible verse.  A Google search of more popular verses like “Cast your anxieties upon the Lord” brings up much different search results than “You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.”  It made me feel a little lonely in my quest to understand the fourth Commandment, as if I were trying to turn back the clock and return to some bygone era.  Nevertheless, I set out to explore the Sabbath and came to appreciate the Sabbath as a wonderful gift from God created for our benefit.  Along the way I discovered that the Sabbath is a reminder that we need to take a rest and be refreshed, a sign that we belong to God, a time set aside for fellowship, a day to enjoy what we have created through our labor, a pleasant way to bring rhythm and order to our lives, a time to lay down our burdens and step away from commerce, a day to do good for others, to take care of ourselves, and to heal what ails us, a day to have our own cup filled, a reminder that there will be a day when we rest from our labors on earth and that the world will go on without us, a day to love God and feel God’s love for us.  God knows we need rest.  It’s one of God’s Ten Commandments, and for me, personally the easiest one to ignore.

Bricks without Straw

Most people start their study of the Sabbath with the creation story, but I have simply read it too many times!  And I feel that if I haven’t been convinced to rest once a week because God rested on the seventh day by this point in my life, it’s not going to happen.

I decided instead to start from a point of no rest and I reread the history of the people of Israel in Egypt.  After Moses first tells Pharaoh “Let my people go”, Pharaoh responds by increasing their burden.  They are no longer given straw to make bricks, but the daily quota is not reduced and then they were beaten for not being able to do their daily task:

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After the plagues and the parting of the red sea, the people of Israel are in the wilderness and complaining of hunger.  God provides manna, bread from heaven, and he gives the people a Sabbath.  God’s very first command to the people of Israel is “Take a rest once a week!”  He tells them to prepare for it and then simply rest.  They don’t even have to move from the place where they are:

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I’ll return to the topic of the Ten Commandments when I get to Deuteronomy.  For now I’ll just share this rule regarding the Sabbath and Festivals:

Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed.

The purpose of taking a rest was refreshment!  And God expresses his concern for the animals, too:

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I was reading along through all the passages I could find on the Sabbath and found this verse:  “Above all, you shall keep my Sabbaths.”  I was puzzled to read that keeping the Sabbath was of such high importance.  As I thought about how to illustrate the passage, I decided on an engagement ring as an example of a sign between two parties.  The seventh day is like a standing date between two parties that love each other.  I was also struck that God says he will sanctify his people through the Sabbath.  As I reflected on this, there is a sense that keeping the Sabbath supports all of the other commandments.  Keeping the Sabbath strengthens our relationship with God, which helps with the first three commandments (have no other God before me, don’t worship idols, don’t take the Lords name in vain).  Spending unstructured time with children aids in teaching children to honor their parents.  Resting makes one feel less hostile.  Spending time together as a family strengthens marriages.  Taking a day to enjoy the fruits of our labor makes us less likely to covet or steal.  Keeping a Sabbath probably helps keep us honest, too!

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Some of the instructions for the Sabbath completely baffle me.  One of the instructions says:  “You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.”  No candles?  What if it’s cold?  I think this passage is generally understood as a prohibition against heating food on the Sabbath.  I found myself wondering if the Sabbath was meant to be a day to gather in community?  Not a day to make a fire in your own dwelling place?  I asked my seven-year-old son about the passage and he had as good an explanation as any I read:  “Don’t start a fight on the Sabbath!”  This seems like good advice!

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(I am a little sad about the spelling error above.  But I’m learning it’s ok not to be perfect.  And it makes me smile just a little.  My three-year-old daughter keeps asking for Kinder Surprise Eggs, so “kinder” was on my mind!)

I illustrated this passage about the bread of the presence because it becomes important later!  The priests were instructed to bake twelve loaves of bread and set them in two piles topped with frankincense on a table of gold every Sabbath.  As I researched the showbread, I learned that it stayed fresh all week and that the priests (and only the priests) would eat the bread at the end of the week before setting out new bread.

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We’ve made it to the story that started my curiosity about the Sabbath:  the man gathering sticks.  The Bible even seems a little self-conscious about this story, too.  Just before the story, there is a LONG passage about how nobody is going to get stoned for doing something accidentally or unintentionally.  After drawing the picture, I noticed how he seems alone on a day meant for the community.  (I can’t help but think Jesus would have just searched for the lost sheep!)

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This is another passage that becomes important later.  When Jesus teaches about the Sabbath, he reminds his listeners of the priests who profane the Sabbath.  My study Bible pointed me to Numbers 28:9.  I noted that everyone else gets a rest, but the priests’ daily burnt offerings are doubled on the Sabbath:

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When I read the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy, I yelled out lout “Eureka!”  In Exodus, the Hebrew people are told to keep the Sabbath because God created the world in seven days and then he rested.  In Deuteronomy, they are told to keep the Sabbath as a reminder that they were once slaves in Egypt and God brought them out from there with a mighty hand and outstretched arm.  In both versions of the Ten Commandments, the words dedicated to the fourth commandment are by far and away greater than any of the others, the explanation is more complete.  To keep the day holy means to rest!  God tells a group of people who were once slaves, “Rest or else!”  (My understanding on this has been mixed up my whole life!)

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When Jesus teaches about the Sabbath, he reminds listeners of the time that David went to the temple and ate the showbread.  After reading the passage, I had a hard time understanding how it had anything to do with his disciples picking and eating grains on the Sabbath.  It’s kind of a sad and horrible story.  David is on the run from Saul, who wants to kill him out of jealousy, and he goes to the temple for food and a weapon.  The priest hands over to him five loaves of the showbread and the sword of Goliath that was kept as a trophy.  I just felt sad reading this story, remembering how David once took five smooth stones and a slingshot to battle the giant Goliath.  Here he seems to have lost all faith.  And the worst part of the story is that Doeg the Edomite sees the event and reports to Saul that the priest gave David these things.  Saul has Doeg the Edomite kill 85 priests.  It seems like every time David does something wrong somebody else gets punished.  I just wondered if perhaps Jesus were drawing attention to this story to suggest that he would be the priest who pays the price should any of his followers break the Sabbath?

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Onto happier things!  Solomon decides to build a temple.  As I read Solomon’s excitement about creating a place for regular offerings on Sabbaths, new moons, and feasts, I felt filled with a sense of appreciation for the rhythm that Sabbaths and holidays bring to life.  The temple must have been extraordinary to behold.  I can’t even begin to imagine that much gold in one place!  As I thought about Solomon’s temple, I heard Christ’s words ringing in my ears:  “Something greater than the temple is here.”

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You really can’t study the Sabbath without breaking open the book of Nehemiah.  This book was written in a time of reform and a BIG part of the reform was reinstating the Sabbath.  Among the prohibitions:

And if the peoples of the land bring in goods or any grain on the Sabbath day to sell, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on a holy day.-Nehemiah 31

And it struck me that it is a good thing to take a break from commercial activity.  Before I had children, one of my favorite things to do on Christmas was to take a chilly walk with my husband on the Appalachian trail.  I loved the drive to the park because it was always such a marvel to me to see EVERYTHING in town closed.  We live in a such a relentlessly commercial culture.  On Christmas day, it just makes me feel really happy inside to know that at least for one day a year people across the country have a collective pause!  For me personally, I find that it’s refreshing one day a week to simply avoid being places where money is needed and spend more time enjoying our home and nature!

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Skipping ahead to the book of Isaiah, I found myself scratching my head:  Why would God say that Sabbaths had become a burden and made Him weary?  I can’t imagine God saying:  I’m really tired of you being faithful in your marriages or it’s wearisome to me that you don’t steal or kill?  Why would God grow weary of one of the ten things He commanded His people to do?  It just struck me as odd.  I kept reading and smiled.  The thought occurred to me, “The minister of my childhood church sure got this message!”  He always preached about being good, seeking justice, correcting oppression, helping the poor (and not once that I can remember about the Sabbath!).  Sunday mornings were to prepare us to go out into the world and live our faith so that we could in turn change our culture for the better!  But I found myself wondering, if perhaps the most oppressive quality of our society today is how it never stops.  So many children are “orphaned” through the business of their parents’ lives.  We need freedom from the tyranny of the to-do list.  Families need more quality time together.  We all need more rest!

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I read the following passage just after reading the whole book of Nehemiah including the list of returned exiles, some of whom were labeled as unclean since they could not prove that the belonged to the House of Israel through their descent. So I paused thinking how refreshing Isaiah’s invitation to foreigners felt to my ears!  God promises to make everyone who keeps the Sabbath joyful!  In this passage that talked of foreigners keeping the Sabbath, I found the words that Jesus said as he cleansed the temple:  “For my house shall be called a house of prayer.”  Most scholars agree that the cleansing of the temple was the event that directly led to the Crucifixion–the final straw.  I added a cross to the page as a reminder to myself that these are the words that cost Jesus his life.  Jesus demanded a house of prayer for all peoples!

051In Jeremiah, I found a prohibition against carrying any burdens on the Sabbath.  I have always loved the image of God as a potter.  It happened to fall on this page, so I added the words to a familiar hymn along the outside edge:

Have thine own way, Lord.  Have thine own way.  Thou art the potter; I am the clay.  Mold me and make me after thy will while I am waiting yielded and still.

053The prophet Ezekiel notes that when God’s people fail to keep the Sabbaths, they start chasing after idols.  I asked my father about Sundays when he was young.  He told me that his grandfather was not allowed to play professional baseball since they played on Sundays.  He also told me about Blue Sky laws and how nothing was open.  I found myself wondering what idols we have been chasing in the United States today that caused the big shift in attitude about Sundays.  Even faithful Christians seem to be caught up in being busy all the time.  In her book “The Gifts of Imperfection” Brene Brown shares that one of the characteristics of whole-hearted people is that they rest and play, but shares this observation about life today:

Well, this is where my work as a shame researcher comes in.  In today’s culture–where our self-worth is tied to our net worth, and we base our worthiness on our level of productivity–spending time doing purposeless activity is rare.  In fact, for many of us it sounds like an anxiety attack waiting to happen.  We’ve go so much to do and so little time that the idea of spending time doing anything unrelated to the to-do list actually creates stress.

She shares a quote from Dr. Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist, clinical research, and founder of the National Institute of Play:

Respecting our biologically programmed need for play can transform work.  It can bring back excitement and newness to our job.  Play helps us deal with difficulties, provides a sense of expansiveness, promotes mastery of our craft, and is an essential part of the creative process.  Most import, true play that comes from our own inner needs and desires is the only path to finding lasting joy and satisfaction in our work.  In the long run, work does not work without play.

This is obviously a more secular perspective on the topic, but we miss out when we don’t take time to refresh ourselves.  Blue Skies Laws were upheld as constitutional on the grounds that they promoted a public good beyond enabling people to worship.  It’s curious that we now need so much convincing that it is good to rest and play!!!

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I included the following verse because Jesus refers to it on his teachings regarding the Sabbath….

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We are finally to the New Testament!!!  There is a story that is told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Jesus was traveling through the grain fields and his disciples begin to pluck heads of grain.  The Pharisees want to know why they are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.  That’s when Jesus tells the story of David eating the showbread, of priests profaning the Sabbaths, and how God desires mercy (or my translation above reads “steadfast love”) not sacrifice.  Then in all three of these gospels Jesus heals a man with a withered hand.  In each Gospel, this story begins the tensions between Jesus and the religious leaders.  In Matthew it reads: “The Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.”  (Matthew 12:11)  I picked a verse from all three gospel stories….

Jesus teaches that it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath…

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He teaches that the Sabbath should not be a burden!!!  The Sabbath is a gift to us:

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And Jesus declares that he is Lord of the Sabbath…So I wrote a prayer addressed to Lord of the Sabbath!  As I did, I could hear a whisper in my heart…”You never did like taking naps!”  It’s taken me over forty years, but I am finally starting to see the value of rest!!!

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The big outstanding question on my mind is “Why Sunday?”  I have read every reference to the Sabbath from Genesis to Revelation and can’t find any Biblical reference to worship or rest on the first day of the week.  Its ALWAYS the seventh day.  I read the article on Wikipedia and focused on the the Easter story.  The best explanation I can give is that the early church focused on the first day of the week as the day to celebrate Holy Communion.  Each Sunday represented a little Easter.  It happened that sometime later the Roman empire declared Sunday to be a civic holiday, which made it easier for Christians to worship and rest on Sunday.  As I carefully reread the Easter story, I noted that Jesus rested in the tomb on the seventh day, which feels like a sad and heavy rest to me.  On the first day of the week, the tomb was empty.  St. Paul teaches that Christ died for our sins and was resurrected for our justification.  The resurrection is evidence that God is satisfied with the offering.  It wasn’t enough for Jesus to die for our sins; he also had to be resurrected for his work to be complete.  This makes the first day of the week the day that our Lord was released from the work he came to do, so as Christians we follow Christ’s example!  We walk in new life, and it is a happy, joyful day for us!  My conclusion for what it’s worth:  The reasons for a Sunday Sabbath are rooted in the Easter story and supported by two thousand years of tradition.

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The gospel of John does not share the story of the disciples picking grains or the man with the withered hand, but it does share the story of a man blind from birth who was healed on the Sabbath after Jesus made mud and put it on his eyes.  Until completing this review of the Sabbath, I never understand the significance of the mud!  But now I see.  My favorite part of the story is when the Pharisees ask the blind man who Jesus was.  He replies “A prophet!”  Prophets are always doing strange things, but with a purpose.  Here’s my interpretation of the mud…

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Jesus teaches that the Sabbath is made for man.  It was never meant to be a burden.  It is completely lawful to do good on the Sabbath.  We are expected to care for ourselves and others, to take time to heal!  It is a day to be refreshed and restored and be grateful that we are not slaves making bricks without straw in Egypt!  This teaching was met with tremendous resistance (and I can better understand why!).  St. Paul goes further than Jesus in changing our understanding about the Sabbath.  For Paul, Jesus is the Sabbath, the one who gives us rest from the law.  We are completely and radically free in Christ and that freedom extends to how we worship:

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In Hebrews, St. Paul teaches about the Sabbath as the rest yet to come, a vision of a promised land that awaits all those who believe in Christ.

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It’s a bit anti-climatic to reach the end of this study with the conclusion that for Christians, we don’t have to worry about finding the exact best way to keep the Sabbath.  We just have to keep Jesus.  Through studying the Sabbath, I have a better understanding of who Jesus is:  the great high priest, the bread of the presence, the lamb of god, light of the world, savior, messiah, and king.  He is Lord of our Sabbath, however we celebrate it and Lord of the promised rest to come!  For myself, I will be doing my best to keep Sunday a holy day, taking time to rest and worship!  As far as I can discern, this is God’s good and acceptable and perfect will for my life as a sign that I will not be conformed to this world, but will be transformed by the renewal of mind and body and spirit!  My cup totally overrunneth with this post!  Now to get some rest!!!

As an afterthought…this post feels very much like the answer to my prayer in my very first entry in my journaling Bible, also on the topic of rest.  It’s like God said to me, “If you want rest, Sally, I do have a plan for that!”

Vocation

The next prompt in Writing in the Margins:

Jonathan Ammon speaks of his “Ebenezer”-a stone of help-from Samuel 7:12.  Read this text in its context.  What are your “Ebenezers”?  Write these in gratitude in your margin.

There have been any number of moments where I have felt God’s help, but the moment I would memorialize with a stone relates to a day that my perspective shifted and I sorted out a new understanding of vocation. I went from spinning my wheels and being trapped in my thoughts to living life more fully. I was really having trouble finding words to explain what happened. I decided to search for quotes on vocation. I love good quotes almost as much as I love Bible verses, so I got a little carried away. I’ll share my own concluding thoughts at the end, and of course, the journal entry in my Bible! (If I were to be a student of theology, this is the topic I would study! And the quotes below look like the start of a good reading list!)

Quotes on Vocation

“You owe it to all of us to get on with what you’re good at.”-W.H. Auden

“We will never find our vocations by trying to figure out whether we are better or worse than others. We are good enough to do what we are called to do. Be yourself.”-Henri J.M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith

“The doctrine of vocation deals with how God works through human beings to bestow His gifts. God gives us this day our daily bread by means of the farmer, the banker, the cooks, and the lady at the check-out counter. He creates new life—the most amazing miracle of all—by means of mother and fathers. He protects us by means of the police officers, firemen, and our military. He creates through artists. He heals by working through doctors, nurses, and others whom He has gifted, equipped and called to the medical professions.”—Gene Veith

“A woman told me about getting involved in Bible study that demanded strict commitment to the study of God’s Word. ‘You should make the Bible your number one priority,’ she was told. That meant getting up early and the very first ting in the morning doing Bible reading and having quiet time with the Lord. She did this, but to her consternation every morning as she would start to read her Bible, the baby would wake up. She found herself resenting the interruption. Here she was, trying to spend time with God, and the baby would start fussing, demanding to be fed and distracting her attention away from spiritual things. After a while, though, she came to understand the doctrine of vocation. Taking care of her baby was what God, at that moment, was calling her to do. Being a mother and loving and serving her child was her vocation, her divine calling from the Lord. She could read the Bible later. She did not have to feel guilty that she was neglecting spiritual things; taking care of her baby is a spiritual thing!”—Gene Veith, God at Work

“Cause every task of your day to be a sacred ministry to the Lord, however mundane your duties, for you they are a sacrament.”-Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth

“The two ideas, justice and vocation, are inseparable…It is by way of the principle and practice of vocation that sanctity and reverence enter into the human economy. It was thus possible for traditional cultures to conceive that ‘to work is to pray.’”—Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays

“The book of Genesis leaves us with a striking truth: Work was part of paradise.”—Tim Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World

“A job is a vocation only if someone else calls you to do it for them rather than for yourself. And so our work can be a calling only if it is reimagined as a mission of service to something beyond merely our own interests. Thinking of work mainly as a means of self-fulfillment and self-realization slowly crushes a person.”—Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World

“The vocation of every man and woman is to serve people.”—Leo Tolstoy

“In the long term I think being a preacher, missionary, or leading a Bible study group in many ways is easier. There is a certain spiritual glamour in doing it, and what we should be doing each day is easier to discern more black and white, not so gray. It is often hard to get Christians to see that God is willing not just to use men and women in ministry, but in law, in medicine, in business, in the arts. This is the great shortfall today.”—Dick Lucas

“Everything. Everywhere, Every moment. That is the scope of God’s call on our lives, and that is the dignity our lives enjoy.”-John G. Stackhouse Jr., Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World

“The point of the calling was, quite simply, that it was appointed by God to serve neighbors. If along the way some self-fulfillment came as well, there was nothing wrong with that, but it was hardly the point of the calling.”—Gilbert Meilaender, Friendship: Philosophy.

“Your calling is to be faithful to God where you are, and in doing this all work is sacred, spiritual, worthy of your full attention and energy. When you get to work, you are not entering a secular environment as much as you are bringing the sacred into the world by following Christ wherever you are.”—Joe Thorn, Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching to Yourself.

“From the outset, Protestantism rejected the critical medieval distinction between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ orders. While this position can easily be interpreted as a claim for the desacralization of the sacred, it can equally be interpreted as a claim for the sacralization of the secular. As early as 1520, Luther had laid the fundamental conceptual foundations for created sacred space within the secular. His doctrine of the priesthood of all believers’ asserted that there is no genuine difference of status between the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘temporal’ order. All Christians are called to be priest—and can exercise that calling within the everyday world. The idea of ‘calling’ was fundamentally redefined: No longer was it about being called to serve God by leaving the world; it was now about serving God in the World.”—Alister E. McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution: A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First

“God himself will milk the cows through him whose vocation that is.”—Martin Luther

“God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does.”—Martin Luther

“A true Christian lives and labors on earth not for himself but for his neighbor. Therefore the whole spirit of his life impels him to do even that which he needs not do, but which is profitable and necessary for his neighbor.”—Martin Luther

“And speaking of options, these kids have all been told that theirs are limitless. Once you commit to something, though, that ceases to be true. A former student sent me an essay he wrote, a few years after college, called ‘The Paradox of Potential.’ Yale students, he said, are like stem cells. They can be anything in the world, so they try to delay for as long as possible the moment when they have to become just one thing in particular. Possibility, paradoxically, becomes limitation.”—William Deresiewicz Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.

“The struggle is not with others, but within us, to do what we are called to do.”—John Geddes

“We are not called upon to do all the good that is possible, but only that which we can do.”—Theodore Guerin, Journals and Letters of Mother Theodor Guerin.

“Many people mistake our work for our vocation. Our vocation is the love of Jesus.”—Mother Teresa

“Vocation at its deepest level is, ‘This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.’”-Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

“A man knows when he has found his vocation when he stops thinking about how to live, and begins to live.”—Thomas Merton

“Then, overcome by joy, I cried, ‘Jesus, my love. At last I have found my vocation. My vocation is love. In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and then I will be all things.’”—Therese of Lisieux

My Ebenezer Moment (and a little bit of backstory):

I grew up hearing that I could be anything I wanted to be, and I dreamed of being everything from a teacher to an astronaut, but most of all I always knew that I wanted to be a mother. My own mother is of the baby boomer generation and a feminist and wanted career choice and opportunity for her daughter. While studying for honors exams at Swarthmore, she called and said, “If you are getting married and your fiancé is starting law school, you need to be looking for a job.”   So I sent out a bunch of cover letters and resumes and ended up with a good job in the research department of a brokerage firm. I majored in economics and minored in English, so writing about stocks seemed to be a good fit.  Years passed and my husband took a job with a family law firm in smaller town in central Pennsylvania, and I had the opportunity to continue working as a security analyst with a home office. Then I received a call from my mother: “You could be anything. How did you end up working alone at home with spreadsheets? I’ll never understand how someone who likes people as much as you do ended up working with numbers.” Meanwhile, I was still hoping to be a mother! More years passed and I just fell into a funk. I sought counseling to get help with direction for my life, and I drove three hours to talk with my employer to say “I’m having a little bit of trouble staying focused on work right now”—just to be fair to him. And to be honest, I probably seemed as vexed and anxious to him as Hannah in the temple. But his response was to be understanding and kind, and then he gave me a project to do, that needed to be completed right way. It was just a simple thing, but I remember feeling like it took everything inside me to stay focused and get it done. I grabbed hold of a crystal figurine of a cross that happened to be sitting on the real office desk where I worked (as opposed to my virtual office), gritted my teeth, and did the task. And when I finished, it was like a light switch turned on, and I could see clearly the value in simply doing the work right before me. I’ve never really looked back or questioned my career choice since, but I have completely rethought my whole understanding of vocation.

This feels a little embarrassing to admit, but I once had a happily ever after view of vocation. I thought of finding the right career as the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, an achievement of self-actualization. I naively expected to find a job that would fill me with joy while matching my skills and talents with the world’s needs (and make my parents proud!). And quite honestly this view was reinforced by a sermon at church that quoted Frederick Buechner:

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

I remember hearing the advice and earnestly praying to find that place. I just wasn’t sure what that was or how to get there (and I was hoping to have children before I turned 30, which wasn’t happening either!)

When my boss handed me a new assignment immediately after I had just tearfully confessed to him all my troubles and uncertainties, my whole understanding of vocation changed. To my amazement, I found a quote that gave words to this turning point in my life and paused in wonder after reading them because I’m not sure I would have the courage to put it this way:

A job is a vocation only if someone else calls you to do it for them rather than for yourself. And so our work can be a calling only if it is reimagined as a mission of service to something beyond merely our own interests. Thinking of work mainly as a means of self-fulfillment and self-realization slowly crushes a person.—Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World

I don’t feel prepared to say that the above words are universally true, but the words definitely ring true of my own personal experience. In one heartbeat, my perspective shifted and I was able to clearly see my vocation as service and that my career was just one of many ways that God calls me to serve others. When at last I was blessed to be a mother, vocation had wonderful new meaning. I think maybe motherhood provides a clear example of vocation in its purest sense:

Vocation at its deepest level is, “This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.”-Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

Vocation is like the involuntary response that a mother has to the sound of her baby crying; it is our call to the work to the work clearly before us offered in love.

Some of the assignments from Writing in the Margins have touched me very deeply. This was no exception. Finding words from Hannah’s story to offer God in prayer made me a bit teary.  Hannah and I worship the same God!

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Messy Thoughts

First I should say that my habit about writing for this blog has been to read a prompt from Writing in the Margins and read the Bible passage, and then I just let ideas kick around my head until I feel inspired.  I committed to writing as fast as I could about a verse, just letting the thoughts flow, and then I started to feel apprehensive about the whole assignment!!!  After I completed the exercise, I was reminded of a writing class I took years ago.  Our professor was fond of saying “Writing is a tool for thinking.”  This approach of “writing freehand with boldness, joy, and urgency” proved to be a quick way to pull thoughts and connections about a passage.  But for me, this felt messy, rough, and well, imperfect—not necessarily a way I would fill my margins.  That being said, I feel nothing but admiration and awe for Phil Pringle for trusting the process and just sharing his wonderful thoughts with the world!!!  It’s a brilliant approach to Bible Study for a busy person!  It’s simple and quick and unpacks a lot of thoughts in record time!  Very cool!

Here’s  my messy thoughts…

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Jesus is the vine and so long as we remain connected we have life and our life is so delicious as it bears healthy and delicious food.  Taste and see that the Lord is good!  If we let our lives become disconnected then we begin to wither and die—no more fruit comes forth.  How do we stay connected to the vine?  Prayer is the most powerful way to feel and experience our connectedness to the source…The TRUE LIGHT that gives light to everyone is also the vine…the vine brings nourishment and allows the branches to grow in productive way.  If prayer is our lifeblood, our connection, the WORD is our rain (Isaiah 55:10-11).  The WORD accomplishes its purpose in our life just as rain helps the whole plant to flourish.  Sunshine for Christians is fellowship.  What else does a branch need?  Jesus tells us that God is the vinedresser.  The final shape of what we are becoming as Christians is under the care and direction of God.  God’s purpose will prevail.  God starts small, like mustard seed small; what God grows becomes a blessing to all!  Stay connected.

Afterthought:  I was wondering about the soil.  I thought of how Adam was created from a lump of clay.  If you think of soil as simply being our mortality than Jesus as the vine is the one who draws from the mortal experience what we need to grow.  In doing so, he teaches us how to live well.

Apart from Me You Can Do Nothing

Before attempting to write in the style of Phil Pringle, I first needed to pick a verse.  I settled on John 15:5-6.  It looks like Phil prints out a verse and then writes all around it, so I’ll do that before bed, put the verse under my pillow, and first thing in the morning see what pours out!  In the meantime, I spent a little time reflecting on the verse, illustrating it, and praying.

There are three people especially on my mind tonight:

  • Rebekah Jones, who asked on Facebook for prayers for her creative ministry;
  • Phil Pringle and his ministry;
  • Jeff Bodziony, the pastor of the Forward Church located in Slavic Village in Cleveland, Ohio.  He read John 15:5 while in prison and the Word changed his life.  He went from dealing drugs to the troubled neighborhood to delivering food and a poetic message of hope.  (A lady I just met in Chambersburg is visiting his church this week on a mission team and will be hosting a children’s program.  I am praying for her, too!)  You can read more about his story here.

Lord, I give thanks for the ways that you have blessed all of the above with creative gifts.  Thank you for their willingness to use their gifts to build your kingdom.  I pray also for the minister of my church, Shanna Noel and Lisa Nichols Hickman as they prepare for an Illustrated Faith event in Virginia this November, and also for the Pope just because he leads such a large church!  Keep all these leaders in your loving care!  May they abide in you and bear much fruit!

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This is work!

The next invitation from Writing in the Margins…

Check out the blog of Phil Pringle. Try his style of scriptural discipline: writing in the margin of your Bible, freehand with boldness, joy, and urgency. Pay attention to your emotions as you write. What does this practice free you to do and pray?

It took me a little digging to find the style of margin writing that Lisa Nichols Hickman described. In the process, I discovered Phil Pringle’s art and also listened to his talk on the power of prayer. Then I found this example that spoke straight to my heart. WordPress makes it easy to share this here…

For a Friend in Deep Waters

I live in a small town where news tends to spread, not always quickly, but eventually stuff comes out of the woodwork.  I heard some very sad news today about a person who has been a blessing to our family.  My heart and prayers go out to my friend, and all I can do is pray, so I prayed and cried some big fat tears as I mixed paint for this picture inspired by the artwork of Phil Pringle, an Australian pastor.

The passage I earnestly prayed…

Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel Your Savior.

(I braved acrylic paints for the first time.  Acrylic paints are a great option because they don’t bleed through and if you make a mistake you can just paint over it.  But I have trouble painting without making a mess.  I ended up with paint on my face and on the table and in unexpected places on my page–not shown!  Time spent in prayer and in the Bible is always well spent even if it gets messy!  Life can be messy, too, and that is when we most need to stay focused on the cross and God’s redeeming love!)

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Don’t Throw Stones

The next prompt from Writing in the Margins relates to the story of the woman caught in adultery:

Writing in the sand helped Jesus gain his composure in John 8.  Read the story in your Bible.  Write in the margin one thing to remember from the text, one thing to wonder about the text, and one thing to live into action from the text.

One thing to remember:

It seems the most important thing to remember from the story is that Jesus showed mercy.

One thing to wonder about (For me, wondering always seems to lead to one question after another.  I’ve done my best to organize my thoughts and questions, but this got a little long!):

This is a bit morbid, but I wondered about the history of stoning (not something that that was covered in Sunday school!).  The Bible that is in my heart is filled with love, faith, hope, and mercy.  Stoning feels at odds with everything I’ve been taught and heard preached at church.  The first mention of stoning I could find mentioned in the Bible is when Moses is just about to head up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God on stone tablets:

And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying “Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it.  Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death.  No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.”-Exodus 19:12-13

As I spent some time rereading the story from Exodus of when Moses received the Ten Commandments, I suddenly saw the action of Jesus bending over to write in the sand with his finger in a new light.  Like Lisa Nichol Hickman suggested in the prompt, I have always heard that Jesus was writing in the sand to gain a little time to formulate an answer to the question posed by the scribes and Pharisees, but now I am wondering if maybe Jesus was reliving Exodus story:

And he gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.-Exodus 31:18

In the story from John 8, Jesus parallels the action of God coming down to Mount Sinai, “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.”  I can imagine Jesus smiling in that moment as he recalled that first meeting with Moses that brought the law.  If the scribes and Pharisees only knew who they were standing before.  The presence of God in his full glory on Mount Sinai was too much for most mortals and here was God fully divine and fully human, available for questions.

I wondered about the specific Old Testament reference that the scribes and Pharisees referred to.  I found this…

If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman.  So you shall purge the evil from Israel.  If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife.  So you shall purge the evil from your midst.  But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die.  But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death.-Deuteronomy 22:22-26

Reading this passage made me wonder:  what happened to the adulterous man in John 8?  The passage seems to demand the same punishment for both (and greater leniency for the woman if her screams could not be heard).

I still wondered with a certain amount of horror about stoning in general.  I found a list of more crimes punishable by stoning (which gave me more to wonder about!):

  • Breaking the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32–36)
  • Laying with a male as with a woman (Leviticus 20:13)
  • Giving one’s children to Molech (Leviticus 20:2–5)
  • Practicing as a medium or a necromancer (Lev. 20:27)
  • Blaspheming the name of God (Lev. 24:10–16)
  • Serving/worshiping other Gods or the sun or the moon (Deuteronomy 17:2–7)
  • Rebelling against parents (Deut. 21,18–21)
  • Getting married as though a virgin, when not a virgin (Deut. 22:13–21)

I wondered if there were a common thread in these crimes (and just generally felt grateful to be living in modern times!).  These crimes all seem to reflect a lack of reverence for God and a lack of faithfulness, especially if you consider the possibility that our relationship with our parents is a model for how we are to relate to God individually and that marriage is the metaphor for the relationship between God and God’s people.  Truly I feel personally horrified at the thought of stoning a rebellious child or an adulterer (and about the poor man who simply picked up sticks on the Sabbath!  What?!?  Heaven help me!), but the message I read through these laws is that a lack of reverence and a lack of faith will surely lead to death.

As I read the terrible fate assigned to those who commit adultery, I found myself thinking of the most well-known example of adultery and murder in the Bible:  King David.  And I remembered that he was not stoned to death nor was Bathsheba.  In beautiful Psalms, David wrote of his repentance and also gratitude to God.    When David sensed what he deserved, he responded with gratitude and a changed heart.  I found new appreciation for these words:

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.  Blessed I the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.-Psalms 32:1-2

I wondered if God is like the teacher, who starts the school year strict and as the classroom finds order, becomes much softer.  God certainly showed kindness and mercy to David.  Or maybe the stoning rules were written to inspire fear with the idea that they would rarely be enforced, given that probably just about everyone has broken one of the rules (Who hasn’t at least broken the Sabbath?  Or rebelled against parents?).

When God’s people sin, it becomes a kind of adultery.  The prophets use the image of the adulteress to characterize the whole of Israel:

And the Lord said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.”-Hosea  3:1

And the message is always that God remain faithful and loving to his people even when we make mistakes or insist on living without God:

For the Lord has called you like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God.  For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you.  In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord, your redeemer.-Isaiah 54:6-8

Seen in this context, Jesus response to the woman caught in adultery is not really a reversal of the Old Testament, but a continuation of the mercy and love that God showed to those who hear him and belong to him in faith.

God gave the law to Moses on stone tablets.  As Christians, we understand that Jesus is one with God and also the fulfillment of the law.  Through the gift of faith, Jesus also restores us to eternal life.  As I reflected on this story and the stoning offences, I gained a better understanding of Paul’s assertion in his letter to the Romans that faith is righteousness and a greater appreciation for the long discussion that Paul provides about the effect of the law, which is nicely summed up:

Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.-Romans 5:20-21

To recognize Jesus as the light of the world, to have faith in Jesus, to be reverent and turn from sin as we encounter Jesus is a response that is met with mercy and brings eternal blessing.  When Jesus comes to earth, he gives us a simpler, easier version of the law:  “Love one another as I have loved you.”  He also shows us how to live the law so that we know what love means.

I marvel at how Jesus was able to have everyone present examine their own conscience.  Jesus simply told the scribes and Pharisees:  “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”  And the story says:  “They went away one by one, beginning with the older ones.”  And when Jesus was standing alone with the woman, he said to her:  “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”  Everyone in the story was turned inward.  It’s difficult if not impossible to throw stones at others when one is fully aware of one’s own need for mercy before God.  Maybe that’s the most important lesson that can be learned from studying stoning in the Bible.

When God came to write on the earth with his finger a second time, it was not to deliver the law, but to save us from sin and death.  I can only imagine the range of emotions the lady must have felt as her shame and fear were met with mercy, love, and the opportunity for a new life.

To live into action:

Be faithful and reverent, giving thanks for God’s mercy and the free gift of eternal life in Christ.

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Uphold Me with a Willing Spirit

The next prompt in Writing in the Margins:

Psalm 51:10 prays for a clean heart.  The old adage says, “Dirty Bible, Clean Heart.”  Put some of your life dirt on the Bible page and offer these words to God as a confession.

My thinking can change quite drastically from the time I start reflecting on a prompt to the time that it ends up in my Bible.  My first thoughts scanned my whole life for tabloid-worthy “dirt”, but this prompt and this passage happened to find me at a time when something is weighing pretty heavily on me that I simply need to do, and “my dirt” relates more to this present concern.  It’s not particularly sensational (if my kids ever want to open the envelope they will be disappointed)!  It’s just an area of my life that needs improvement.

As I worked this out, God helped me to see this dirt more from the perspective of a gardener.  By confessing to God, it felt like I allowed God to get to work, and I felt an area of new growth opening before me.   What felt heavy, began to feel lighter.  I experienced a new confidence and trust in God.  I have always loved Psalm 51, but it has an extra special place in my heart now.

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