A LONG SABBATH 

Martha was frantic with all the work in the kitchen. “Master,” she said, coming in to where they were, “don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work all by myself? Tell her to give me a hand!” [Luke 10:40 (NTE)]

madagasgar periwinkleNo one has remained untouched by the trials and misfortune of this challenging year. That’s why my friend admitted feeling uncomfortable when acknowledging that she’s come to enjoy the downtime and slow pace of sheltering in place and social distancing. I had to agree with her. You see, pre-pandemic, we’d been more like Martha than Mary and our lives were filled with activities and obligations. I never seemed to have quite enough time and often felt overwhelmed by obligations. In an odd way, we both feel blessed by the slower pace of this quieter time.

When Jesus came to dinner, Martha was honored to host the famous rabbi. Fulfilling cultural expectations, she busied herself with her domestic duties. Wanting to impress her guests, she probably did whatever the 1st century equivalent was of setting the table with the finest tablecloth, Lenox china, sterling silver, Waterford goblets, flower centerpiece, and candles while preparing a four course gourmet dinner and baking a triple berry pie from scratch. Breaching society’s expectations, however, her sister Mary sat with the men at the feet of Jesus.

Translated as distracted or frantic, the Greek word used to describe Martha’s state of mind is periespato. Meaning drawn away, it indicates being pulled in different directions at once, just as a hostess is when she’s got meat on the grill, rolls in the oven, a pot boiling on the stove, water glasses to fill, and guests in the living room! Not knowing which way to turn and thinking Mary was the solution, Martha complained to Jesus. When He told her only one thing mattered, He may have meant one simple dish was all the men needed. It’s more likely that He meant spending time in His presence was the important thing, which was what Mary was doing. While busy Martha was working to feed Jesus, contemplative Mary was feeding on His words.

Life has taken on a simpler shape during this pandemic and I’ve learned that activity doesn’t necessarily mean accomplishment. Like Martha, I’d become distracted while trying to serve the Lord. Now, with my calendar cleared of concerts, plays, date nights, guests, fund raisers, lectures, assorted appointments, classes, tours, and get-togethers, I’m taking the time to be like Mary: to be with Jesus at His feet.

On the seventh day of creation, God rested from His work, blessed the day and made it holy. When He gave us the Sabbath, it was to be a day of rest, refreshment, and recuperation dedicated to the Lord. Sheltering in place is like a very long Sabbath. Requiring us to depend on God’s provision, it affords us a beautiful opportunity to step out of our normal routine and into God’s presence. Let us all make the most of this extended Sabbath. May it become a blessed opportunity to become less like Martha and more like Mary.

“Martha, Martha,” he replied, “you are fretting and fussing about so many things. Only one thing matters. Mary has chosen the best part, and it’s not going to be taken away from her.” [Luke 10:41-42 (NTE)]

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IT’S NOT FOUND UNDER THE SUN

I observed everything going on under the sun, and really, it is all meaningless—like chasing the wind. … So I came to hate life because everything done here under the sun is so troubling. Everything is meaningless—like chasing the wind. [Ecclesiastes 1:14, 2:17 (NLT)]

queen butterfly

The story is told of a great king who ruled a large prosperous kingdom. Rich, powerful and considered wise, he lived in a splendid castle, was attended to by many servants, and surrounded by nobles and beautiful women. Lacking nothing, he drank only the most exquisite wine and ate only the most delectable food. The king, however, never felt content. Even though he kept his servants busy searching for more gorgeous flowers for his garden, better chefs for his kitchen, finer tailors for his robes, faster horses for his stable, and larger rubies for his crown, true happiness and peace escaped him.

Despairing of ever feeling content, the king finally sent his servants in search of the happiest man in the kingdom whose coat they were to bring back to the castle. The discontented monarch was sure that, by possessing the coat of that happy man, he finally would find peace and contentment. Although the royal servants searched high and low, they returned empty-handed to the king. When he asked why they couldn’t find the happiest man, one servant hesitantly admitted to finding him. When the angry king demanded, “Then why didn’t you bring me his coat?” the servant meekly replied, “Because he has no coat!”

Although God gave Solomon the gift of wisdom early in his kingship, that wisdom didn’t prevent him from ignoring the advice of his father (David), making poor choices, filling his life with worldly goods, and disobeying God. Like burn ointment or hand sanitizer, even Solomon’s wisdom was useless when not applied! Filled with regret at the end of his life, Solomon used the word “meaningless” at least forty times in Ecclesiastes. With its message, Solomon wanted to spare future generations the bitter lesson that life only lived “under the sun” is meaningless and empty; the meaning of life cannot be found apart from God.

If the king in my story had read Ecclesiastes, he would have known that security, contentment, and happiness will never be found by wearing the coat of a happy man. They can’t be found in wealth like Solomon’s, possessions, achievements, learning, power or pleasure. The last chapter of Ecclesiastes, however, tells us how they can be found: by seeking our fulfillment “above the sun” in God. We don’t need the wisdom of Solomon to know that true contentment, peace and even joy can be found only in a relationship with God.

We must learn to live on the heavenly side and look at things from above. To contemplate all things as God sees them, as Christ beholds them, overcomes sin, defies Satan, dissolves perplexities, lifts us above trials, separates us from the world and conquers fear of death. [A.B. Simpson]

Remember your Creator now while you are young, before the cord of life snaps and the golden bowl is broken. … Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. [Ecclesiastes 12:6a,13 (NLT)]

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DO WE WANT THE TRUTH?

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” [John 18:37-38b (RSV)]

loretto - pilate washing his hands

In the movie A Few Good Men, while being questioned in court, Colonel Jessep asks, “You want answers?” When Lt. Kaffee answers, “I want the truth!” Jessep responds, “You can’t handle the truth.” What eventually follows, while revealing the facts, is really just the colonel’s version of the truth. So, what exactly is truth?

The question of truth has fascinated philosophers for centuries. We know that truth isn’t falsehood or lies but defining it is harder, especially since some people believe truth can be subjective: truth is what things seem to be, involves preference and opinion, can be arrived at by consensus, or that no ultimate standards exist. We’ve all heard of alternative facts and know that even the most accurate statistics can be manipulated, massaged, and misstated to say just about anything. Tyler Vigen illustrated that by finding correlations between totally unrelated things such as a 99.26% correlation between the divorce rate in Maine and the per capita consumption of margarine and a 98.51% correlation between total arcade revenue and the number of computer science doctorates awarded each year in the U.S.

Truth in Scripture, however, is absolute. Pastor John MacArthur explains that, “Truth is that which is consistent with the mind, will, character, glory, and being of God….Truth is the self-expression of God.” Since truth is related to the character of God, something eternal and unchanging, the nature of truth is fixed. It has no expiration date and, unlike a computer program, it’s not up for revision, correction or updating. Author Josh McDowell defines truth as, “That which is true at all times in all places for all people.”

Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” Wouldn’t you love to have heard His answer to this profound question? Pilate, however, never waited for an answer because his was just a rhetorical question. Pilate didn’t care about the truth once he knew Jesus hadn’t incited rebellion against Rome. Wanting to do the expedient thing, he went back outside to tell the people that Jesus wasn’t guilty of a crime. Thinking the crowd that had welcomed Jesus’ arrival less than a week earlier would call for His release, the governor offered to free Him. Pilate ended up trading the life of the man he’d already found innocent for that of Barabbas, an insurrectionist and murderer! The truth was swapped for a lie!

In Latin, Pilate’s question would have been, “Quid est veritas?” Samuel Johnson, one of the greatest literary figures of the 18th century, made an anagram of Pilate’s question and came up with the answer: “Est vir qui adest,” meaning, “It is the man before you!” Indeed, truth stood right in front of Pilate and he never recognized it.

Perhaps, instead of asking Jesus what truth was, Pilate would have been better served to have asked Jesus who truth was!

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. [John 14:6 (RSV)]

Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” [John 8:31-32 (RSV)]

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IT’S THE THOUGHT THAT COUNTS

At the same time the Spirit also helps us in our weakness, because we don’t know how to pray for what we need. But the Spirit intercedes along with our groans that cannot be expressed in words. The one who searches our hearts knows what the Spirit has in mind. The Spirit intercedes for God’s people the way God wants him to. [Romans 8:26-27 (GW)]

sandhill craneAs a writer, I like to create with words. When writing a devotion, I carefully organize my thoughts, often cutting and pasting while moving sentences or entire paragraphs around. Supporting Bible verses are sought and various commentaries are consulted. Every word is carefully chosen (often after a synonym search). Grammar and spelling are double-checked and editing and rewriting continue right up to publication. All of that messing around with words, phrases and punctuation may be fine when putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, but not when praying. Prayers would never get said if they required that amount of composing, revising and polishing!

God isn’t like an editor with a blue pencil telling us to shorten a paragraph, elaborate on an idea or find a better adjective before the prayer is worthy. He’s not like a teacher with a red pencil checking off our misspellings or grammatical errors. He’s doesn’t grade our prayers or refuse to listen if we’ve ended a sentence with a preposition or split an infinitive. He’s more like a mother who reads and treasures her young child’s letter from camp with its smudges, messy printing, and misspellings. He’s just glad to hear from us.

We’ve all felt painfully inarticulate when it comes to prayer but that shouldn’t prevent us from praying. Although our words may be clumsy, being eloquent is not a requirement for prayer. The power of our prayers is not contained in words, sentence structure, or eloquence; the power of our prayers is found only in the One who hears those prayers! Fortunately, in God’s infinite mercy, He’s given us the assistance of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit, living in us, intercedes for us in our hearts and it’s that heartfelt prayer that reaches God’s ears.

Don’t be so concerned about wrapping the gift that you never give it. … Better to pray awkwardly than not at all. [Max Lucado]

Dear friends, use your most holy faith to grow. Pray with the Holy Spirit’s help. [Jude 1:20 (GW)]

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THE BOSS’S SON

Who, though in God’s form, did not regard his equality with God as something he [Jesus] ought to exploit. Instead, he emptied himself, and received the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of humans. And then, having human appearance, he humbled himself, and became obedient even to death, yes, even the death of the cross. [Philippians 2:6-8 (NTE)]

station of the cross II

My son is the third generation to run the family business. Although he is now its CEO, he didn’t begin that way. As his father had done before him, he started by sweeping floors and emptying trash.

The business expanded when my husband purchased a company in another town. With manufacturing processes that were unfamiliar, our son needed to learn new fabrication procedures and started working in the new facility. When he began, only his supervisor knew his relationship to the business’s new owner. He may have been the boss’s son but, to everyone else, he was just Jim, the new guy on the line. In his work shirt and steel-toed shoes, he looked like everyone else, kept the same hours, followed the same rules, and made the same money. What he didn’t do was pull rank or take advantage of his identity.

Although our son originally thought he could learn everything he needed by reading about it, a few days operating the machinery and getting his hands dirty told him there was nothing like first-hand experience! Now that he’s the boss, his employees recognize that he understands and appreciates the challenges they face in doing their jobs.

I tell this story to help us understand what it was like when Jesus put on human flesh and lived as a man. Clothed in work clothes, my son looked like every other hourly employee on the line. Although Jesus is often depicted with a halo, when He was clothed in human flesh, there was no halo and He looked like any other man. Instead of giving up coat and tie for overalls, Jesus gave up His immortal perfect form and took on the aches, indignities, and illnesses that come with a mortal body.

Just as my boy remained the boss’s son but gave up any status or privileges that came from that, Jesus remained God’s son but gave up the benefits that came with His divinity. Of course, Jesus gave up far more than did my son! He set aside the glory of heaven for life on earth and relinquished the divine life He had in heaven to be an itinerant rabbi in Galilee. Even though equal with His Father, Jesus chose to submit to Him as an earthly son does to his father.

Just as our boy never stopped being the boss’s son, Jesus remained fully God while fully man. Just as his co-workers didn’t know our boy’s real identity, people had trouble recognizing Jesus as God’s Son. While my son did what he did so he could learn the family business, Jesus did what He did to take away the sins of the world. Our son may have humbled himself by starting at the bottom but Jesus humbled himself by deliberately choosing to die a torturous death as a criminal on the cross!

My son knows what it means to be one of his employees and he’s a better boss because of it. Jesus knows what it’s like to be human and we are better because of that! Jesus knows what it is to hurt, be disappointed, suffer, struggle, get tired, thirst, feel hungry, bleed, hope, love and die. Because He lived as one of us, we can come to Him confidently and without fear; instead of condemnation, we will receive God’s grace and mercy!

Well, then, since we have a great high priest who has gone right through the heavens, Jesus, God’s son, let us hold on firmly to our confession of faith. For we don’t have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin. Let us then come boldly to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help us at the moment when we need it. [Hebrews 4:14-16 (NTE)]

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DIAMOND MINING

Some of his [Paul’s] comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture. And this will result in their destruction. [2 Peter 3:16 (NLT)]

butterfly weed“You have to drill through mud and water to get oil; you have to sift through sand and silt to get gold; you have to chop and hack through stone to get diamonds. So why do so many people feel that the treasure of ideas should come to them with little or no effort?” asked Sydney J. Harris. Even though he wasn’t referring to the Bible, the journalist’s words made me think of the way we often approach Scripture; complaining that it’s too hard to understand, we simply don’t study it!

If we’ll put forth effort to perfect our golf or tennis swing, train for a marathon, master chess or bridge, plant a garden, or become a gourmet cook, I wonder why we think understanding Scripture should be effortless. It’s only natural that words penned by 40 (or more) people, between 1400 BC to 90 AD, in a wide variety of genres, in another language, and shaped by different cultures and traditions, require some work to comprehend. Scripture’s words were God breathed by the One who created words and thoughts! He is greater than any novelist or journalist so we should expect His words and ideas to be more difficult to understand than theirs! But, because of the effort required to understand them, many of us don’t bother and stick to a few favorite stories, verses and Psalms.

During this sheltering in place, our church conducted an online Bible study and, after thirteen weeks of video lectures given by Biblical scholar N. T. Wright, we finally completed our study of Philippians. In some sessions, Professor Wright walked us through as few as five verses, but the way he shed light on Paul’s circumstances, the Philippians’ society and environment, the political situation of the time, the original Greek meaning of many of the words, the way Paul’s words in Philippians related to his other letters, and what the Apostle’s words meant to us, was immensely rewarding. It was like taking a beautiful old piece of heavily tarnished silver and polishing it. Before this study, I appreciated Philippians the way I might the tarnished silver piece. After studying the epistle in depth, however, the profoundness of Paul’s words were uncovered the same way silver’s true beauty is revealed when it’s polished! Polishing silver, however, takes “elbow grease” and comprehending Scripture takes effort, as well.

Admittedly, understanding Bible passages and spiritual concepts can be challenging but that shouldn’t discourage or surprise us. Even the Apostle Peter admitted the difficulty of comprehending Paul’s words! Nevertheless, the Apostle knew the importance of trying to understand Scripture to avoid being misled. Peter was concerned about teachers who claimed that Christ’s followers could still live immoral lives. Today’s false teachers may be spouting other nonsense but, without our making the effort to study Scripture, we won’t recognize their errors.

Since each Bible study on Philippians lasted about 45 minutes, we spent around 585 minutes on four chapters. That sounds like a lot of time until we consider the 52 billion-plus minutes of The Office that were streamed by Netflix users in 2018 or the 437 billion minutes spent watching NFL and college football’s regular seasons that same year.

For the last several years, I’ve devoted a part of every day to studying Scripture. I still can’t quote chapter and verse, but my life is fuller and more purposeful because of its words. It’s worth the effort because, like mining for diamonds, each time I dig deep into God’s word, another beautiful gem appears.

The book to read is not the one which thinks for you, but the one which makes you think. No book in the world equals the Bible for that. [Harper Lee]

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NLT)]

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