Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. … For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy. [Exodus 20:8-10a,11 (NLT)]

orchidIt’s hard to think of our omnipotent, invincible, and unstoppable God getting tired after a mere six days of work but Scripture tells us He “rested” on the seventh day. The Hebrew word translated as rested, however, is shabath, meaning to stop, cease, or desist. Rather than God resting because He was exhausted; God simply stopped! I suspect it’s because He wanted to enjoy His finished creation. Picture Him sitting in the Almighty’s version of a La-Z-Boy chair, looking out at the magnificence of the universe—breathing in its aromas, tasting its sweetness, hearing its song, and delighting in its beauty.

In Exodus, when God gave the Israelites the Sabbath Day, He was telling His people to do the same thing—to stop and appreciate His blessings. Imagine how strange the fourth commandment seemed to a people who’d been enslaved by the Egyptians and cruelly oppressed by Pharaoh. They hadn’t enjoyed a day free of work in their entire lives and now they were commanded by God to do just that.

While the Bible doesn’t specifically list the kinds of prohibited labor, it alludes to several areas of work and, in the writings of the Talmud (the oral law), we find 39 kinds of work specifically forbidden on the Sabbath. Through the years, however, the rabbis further defined those 39 prohibitions with hundreds of subcategories. For example, no sewing includes no gluing, welding, or stapling; the ban on lighting a fire means that no fuel can be added to an existing fire; and no building includes not pitching a tent. The Sabbath, however, was meant to be a gift rather than a burden. Along with its prohibitions, the Talmud also encourages Sabbath activities such as temple attendance, singing Sabbath songs, reading the Torah, sleeping, hospitality, spending time with family and friends, and even marital relations!

I have a Jewish friend, the head of a large law firm, who works long hours six days a week. Friday afternoons, however, he turn off both phone and computer, stops billing over $600 an hour, and strictly observes the Sabbath. The Talmud’s many restrictions mean he and his family must plan ahead and prepare for their holy day. He has to leave work early enough Friday to be home well before sunset, the Sabbath food is cooked on Friday, the table is pre-set, lights are turned on or set on timers, the refrigerator light bulb is unscrewed, and even toilet paper and paper towels are pre-torn (since tearing is prohibited).

As they follow their Sabbath rules, my friend and his family are reminded of the holiness of the day. For them, the Sabbath isn’t a day of unreasonable restrictions because it’s about more than ceasing from work. It is a special day of rest, relaxation, peace, family, food, fellowship, worship, Scripture, and even a few board games. On a day wholly dedicated to God and peace, anything that could possibly interfere with the restful spirit of the day is avoided. For 24-hours there’s no television, radio, computers, phones, video games, or social media. Moreover, as a day designed to soothe the frayed nerves and exhaustion that come from a week’s work, there’s no talk of things like business, money, COVID, politics, the war in Ukraine, children’s grades, family conflicts, or the high price of gas!

My Jewish friend’s Sabbath is beginning to sound quite pleasant. Rather than a day of prohibitions, he sees it as a day of respite from the world and a way to reconnect with the Lord. Perhaps our Sabbath should be more like his— a day filled with worship, gratitude, retreat, prayer, and rest—a day to mindfully spend time with family, friends, God, and His word.

O what a blessing is Sunday, interposed between the waves of worldly business like the divine path of the Israelites through the sea! There is nothing in which I would advise you to be more strictly conscientious than in keeping the Sabbath day holy. I can truly declare that to me the Sabbath has been invaluable. [William Wilberforce]

Keep the Sabbath day holy. Don’t pursue your own interests on that day, but enjoy the Sabbath and speak of it with delight as the Lord’s holy day. [Isaiah 58:13a (NLT)]

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On the following day, John saw Jesus coming towards him and said, “Look, there is the lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world! This is the man I meant when I said, ‘A man comes after me who is always in front of me, for he existed before I was born!’ It is true I have not known him, yet it was to make him known to the people of Israel that I came and baptised people with water.” [John 1:29-31 (PHILLIPS)]

mourning doveWe don’t know if John the Baptist recognized Jesus as his distant cousin when the two men met on the banks of the Jordan. Although they were the same age and their mothers were related in some way, with John in the desert and Jesus in Nazareth, it’s not likely they knew one another. If they did, Jesus probably seemed nothing more than an ordinary person to John at the time.

When Jesus walked toward him that day, however, John knew he was seeing someone who was more than a carpenter from Nazareth. In the same way that Elizabeth knew Mary was “the mother of my Lord” when the unborn John leapt in her womb, John recognized Jesus’ true identity as the Son of God. John seemed to have no doubt about Jesus when he testified to seeing the Spirit descend on Him like a dove and, throughout John’s ministry, he continued to point out Jesus as the “Lamb of God.”

After Jesus’ baptism, the gospel of John tells us that both John and Jesus carried on baptizing ministries. Perhaps out of jealousy, some of John’s disciples complained that more people were going to Jesus than coming to John. Again, John made it clear that he knew their different roles when he compared himself to the best man and Jesus to the bridegroom. “He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” [3:30]

More than a year later, what happened to John’s confidence in Jesus’ identity? The man who once had been so sure about Jesus sent his disciples to ask, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” [Mt 11:3] Languishing in Herod’s dungeon, John probably wondered why the conquering king from David’s line hadn’t released him. Why hadn’t Jesus taken the throne from Herod and Rome? Where was the end-time outpouring of the Spirit, the winnowing fork that would separate the chaff from the wheat, and the one who would burn the chaff with “never-ending fire”?

In truth, Jesus wasn’t the Messiah that John and his disciples were expecting; nevertheless, He was the Messiah! John, however, didn’t understand that Jesus had to teach, heal, suffer, die, resurrect, and ascend before returning a second time and executing final judgment. At first, it seems that Jesus ducks John’s question with a summary of his miracles but John understood. The miracles Jesus listed fulfilled the messianic promises in Isaiah; they were proof that He was the Messiah. Jesus’ final message for John is a beatitude that encouraged the Baptizer (and the rest of us) not to stumble in our faith just because Jesus doesn’t fit our expectations.

While we may not be languishing in a dungeon as was John, we may be in languishing in grief, infertility, depression, illness, addiction, chronic pain, money issues, infidelity, or family problems. Just as Jesus didn’t meet John’s expectations, He doesn’t always meet ours. He didn’t free John from Herod’s prison and He may not free us from ours and, like John, we may have doubts. Faith and doubt, however, are not antonyms and doubt and unbelief are not synonyms! We can be people of faith and still have questions; like John, we never should be afraid to ask those questions. John went to Jesus for the answers and, like him, we should look to the words and works of Jesus Christ for our ours. We’ll discover, as did John, that the Lord’s credentials will hold up to the toughest of questions!

Jesus gave them this reply, “Go and tell John what you see and hear—that blind men are recovering their sight, cripples are walking, lepers being healed, the deaf hearing, the dead being brought to life and the good news is being given to those in need. And happy is the man who never loses faith in me.” [Matthew 11:4-6 (PHILLIPS)]

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I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world. [John 16:33 (NLT)]

sorrowless tree - ashokaEven though this last year has been one of sorrow and loss for us, I smiled when I recognized the Sorrowless Tree’s bright orange and yellow flowers at the botanical garden. Although its scientific name is Saraca asoca, the Ashoka is commonly called the Sorrowless Tree. Sometimes I wish such a tree actually existed. Even though the tree can’t prevent sorrow, its beautiful foliage and sweet fragrance were just what I needed to lift my spirits as I mourned yet another friend’s death. The flowers reminded me to find joy and gladness in the day God had given me.

A great deal of mythology and tradition accompany the Ashoka tree. Its common name comes from the Sanskrit word aśoka which means “free from sorrow.” In Hindu mythology, the tree is dedicated to Kama Deva, the god of love. Tradition holds that when someone drinks the water in which Ashoka flowers have been rinsed, they can attain an inner state of profound peace and joy. Once infused with the flower’s essence, the water is said to heal the suffering and sorrow caused by mourning, pain, burdens, trauma, disappointment, and loneliness. While it doesn’t change the root cause of the sorrow, the flowery water is said to change one’s perception of it—sort of a placebo effect.

The Ashoka is also considered sacred in Buddhism. Tradition holds that when Māyā, the Buddha’s mother, reached up to pick one of the tree’s blossoms, she gave birth to her son under the tree. It is said that people will forget all of their worries and concerns just by standing beneath the Ashoka’s beautiful and fragrant blossom because of the tree’s splendor. I have to admit that my heart felt lighter as I paused under the Ashoka’s blossom-laden branches. Rather than focusing on my sorrow, I thanked God for the gift of knowing and loving the beautiful people I’ve recently lost.

As Christians, we know there is no protection from grief and even a dozen Sorrowless Trees in our garden won’t protect us from loss, distress, disappointment, or sorrow. In both the Buddhist and Hindu mythologies, however, the tree’s essence and beauty don’t change the situation—they merely change the attitude and the perception of those circumstances. Like people everywhere, Christians often need an attitude adjustment when life goes seriously awry! When we’re sad, troubled or in pain, on what do we concentrate? Do we focus on our grief, difficulties, and suffering or on God? Do we lament, fret, or moan or do we concentrate on trusting our Heavenly Father? Do we let our negative feelings control us or do we control those discouraging emotions? Do we dwell on our misery or on our blessings? While we have no choice when sorrow and grief enter our lives, we always have a choice regarding the way we will deal with them. Unless we are clinically depressed, we don’t have to be at the mercy of our negative emotions. God has given us the power to do otherwise!

We will never live a sorrowless life. In fact, suffering often accompanies discipleship and our sorrow is neither futile nor unnoticed by God. Instead of drinking a flower’s essence, we can drink the living water of the Spirit—the essence of our God. Rather than standing under a tree gazing at lovely flowers, we can take refuge in the arms of God while pondering His love and trusting in a better life to come. As beautiful as the Ashoka’s flowers are, we will only find profound peace and joy in the Lord.

Should pain and suffering, sorrow, and grief, rise up like clouds and overshadow for a time the Sun of Righteousness and hide Him from your view, do not be dismayed, for in the end this cloud of woe will descend in showers of blessing on your head, and the Sun of Righteousness rise upon you to set no more forever. [Sadhu Sundar Singh]

I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. [John 14:27 (NLT)]

He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever. [Revelation 21:4 (NLT)]

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Do not let anyone treat you as if you are unimportant because you are young. Instead, be an example to the believers with your words, your actions, your love, your faith, and your pure life. [1 Timothy 4:12 (NCV)]

mother and daughterWhen a service group recently asked a young friend if she would serve on their board of directors, her response was that she’s not qualified since she’s “just a mother.” Her response reminded me of when I once thought of myself as “just” a mother. Many years ago, long before Facebook or LinkedIn, I received a questionnaire prepared by my high school’s reunion committee. Along with personal questions like marital status, it asked about my education, jobs, achievements, and awards. Once returned, the responses were Xeroxed, bound, and returned to us prior to our 25th reunion.

When I received the book and read about my old classmates, I felt like the greatest underachiever in the world. I’d attended a private arts academy and my class was filled with bright, talented, and intense over-achievers (except, apparently, for me). Some classmates played in well-known orchestras or had become celebrated soloists but I played piano for children’s Sunday school, accompanied the kid’s choir, and strummed the autoharp at sing-a-longs around the campfire. One classmate composed symphonies played by major orchestras while I’d written several unmemorable songs for Girl Scout camp. Several classmates had acted on Broadway, one had a featured role on a popular sit-com, and another had been nominated for an Academy Award. Rather than Broadway, I did readings at church, moderated political debates at candidate nights, and read bed-time stories to the kids. Fellow grads danced with the ABT and Twyla Tharp while I danced the hokey-pokey with my Brownie troop. Several alumni had become physicians but my medical skill was limited to removing splinters, putting on Band-Aids, and kissing “ouchies”.  A few classmates had their PhDs and taught at prestigious universities but, rather than lecturing at university, I helped kids with homework, volunteered at the school, and became adept at science fair projects. Fellow alums had published books while I wrote the local League of Women Voters’ newsletter and did publicity for a local art fair. Several classmates had traveled the globe and lived in exotic locations but I lived in a small town and traveled the county ferrying kids to activities or meals to the homebound. One person had his art work displayed in major museums and another rescued people from cults. I was skilled with Play-Doh and crayons and the only things I liberated were the fireflies caught on summer nights. In short, I was “just” a mother.

After reading everyone’s accomplishments, I was embarrassed by what I’d written because my life seemed so mundane in comparison to theirs. It’s not that I didn’t like my life—I loved it! I just thought I should have done something more impressive in 25 years. Imagine my surprise when, at the reunion, one of my over-achieving classmates greeted me with the comment that he loved reading my profile. “I’m just a mom and my life is so ordinary,” I protested. “But, you’re so happy!” he responded. His words gave me pause and I looked again at my reunion booklet. I wrote of faith; others wrote of fame. I wrote of giving; others wrote of getting. I wrote of family; others wrote of colleagues. I wrote of church and service; others wrote of accomplishments and honors. Indeed, I was happy and content with my life as “just” a mother!

God gave missions of great consequence to people like Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Jeremiah, Gideon, Peter, and Paul but few of us will ever be asked to do anything as far-reaching as were they. That our achievements won’t be recorded in history, our names won’t be listed in a Hall of Fame, and no awards grace our shelves, does not negate our value. That most of us live in obscurity does not mean our lives are insignificant or unimportant.

The Apostle Paul told Timothy not to let anyone disregard him just because he was young. Like Timothy, we must never allow anyone (not even ourselves) to think less of us because we are “just” a youth or senior, mother or father, handyman, secretary, maid, or anything else. We are children of God and followers of Jesus! Like Timothy, our words, actions, love, faith, and morality are to serve as examples in daily, practical, and relational ways. Let us look forward to the day we hear God say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” After all, His opinion is the only one that matters!

When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, “I used everything you gave me”. [Erma Bombeck]

There are different kinds of gifts, but they are all from the same Spirit. There are different ways to serve but the same Lord to serve. And there are different ways that God works through people but the same God. God works in all of us in everything we do. [1 Corinthians 12:4-6 (NCV)]

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So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. [2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (ESV)]

monarch butterflyNo matter what translation is used for the above verses, I find it difficult to picture something that is described as suffering, trouble, affliction, or tribulation as being small, little, or light. Moreover, while I’d like afflictions to be so, they rarely seem to be temporary or momentary. Perhaps, I’m splitting hairs but what exactly is “momentary” and “light” when it comes to suffering and affliction?

While Paul was writing about his persecution as a follower of Christ, what of other hardships and woes? Does “light and momentary” describe the twelve years of constant bleeding and painful treatments endured by the woman with the “issue of blood,” the thirty-eight years the man lying by the pool at Bethesda had been an invalid, or Job’s grief at the loss of his family and the agony of his illness? Is “temporary” the sixteen years Anthony Broadwater spent in prison after being wrongfully convicted of rape or the thirty years Michael J. Fox has suffered from Parkinsons? Is “momentary, light distress” the three hours Jesus suffered on the cross, the nine months during which Elizabeth Smart experienced being raped by her kidnapper, or the six years John McCain was tortured as a prisoner of war? Does “passing trouble” describe the mental anguish of my bipolar uncle who spent the last twelve years of his life in a mental hospital? Could the twenty years my brother-in-law struggled with Parkinson’s or the thirty my sister dealt with MS be described as “short-lived”? What of the nearly fifty-five years Joni Eareckson Tada has spent as a quadriplegic and the chronic stabbing pain, COVID complications, and two cancer diagnoses she’s endured? Is her suffering merely “momentary, light distress”? When we’re the ones hurting, even if only from an abscessed tooth or a pinched nerve, nothing about it seems light or momentary!

Paul knew what he was talking about; he’d been whipped, beaten, stoned, imprisoned, and shipwrecked and his life was in continual jeopardy because of his ministry. He knew struggle, hunger, betrayal, hardship, persecution, pain, and affliction first-hand. Nevertheless, he also knew that every trial, no matter how he suffered, was just a prelude to the resurrection power of Jesus!

Regardless of its length or severity, for a believer, our suffering here on earth is light and momentary, especially in light of the many blessings we receive in the midst of our afflictions or the adversities suffered by others. Our suffering is small and momentary when compared to what we actually deserve or to what Jesus did for us. Most of all, whatever our afflictions may be, they are “but for a moment” in the light of eternity. No matter how long we live or how difficult our lives are, our years here are a mere dot on God’s eternal timeline. Though our afflictions may last a lifetime, they will not have the last word! What waits for us is eternal not temporary and, rather than light, it is heavy because it is the entire weight of God’s glory!

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. [Romans 8:18 (ESV)]

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. [2 Corinthians 5:1 (ESV)

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For the Kingdom of God is not just a lot of talk; it is living by God’s power. [1 Corinthians 4:20 (NLT)]

little blue heronThirty years ago, Al Franken played a character on Saturday Night Live named Stuart Smalley. Host of a fictitious self-help show called “Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley,” Stuart would look into in a mirror and affirm that he was good enough, smart enough, and that people liked him. A member of several twelve-step programs, Stuart often shared maxims like, “Denial Ain’t Just a River in Egypt!” along with affirmations that he was entitled to his share of happiness and (my personal favorite) that it is easier to put on slippers than to carpet the world.

Even though we laughed at Stuart’s corny affirmations, what we say to ourselves is important. The word affirmation comes from the Latin word affirmare, which means to make steady or strengthen. Affirmations really do strengthen us because they can break the cycle of negative thoughts that lead to negative speech and actions. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right.”

Last May, Jonathon Borge, Senior Editor of Oprah Daily, compiled 40 daily affirmations. It’s no surprise that most quotes came from life-coaches, motivational speakers, self-help authors, and Oprah. One notable exception was boxing champion Muhammad Ali’s: “I am the greatest!” First said in 1964, Ali may or may not have been the greatest boxer but, as Christians, we know that God is greater. Ali’s was a prideful affirmation bordering on blasphemy! Life-coach Tim Storey’s affirmation was, “Your life is about to be incredible.” That’s probably true as far as it goes since Storey never specified incredibly what. Incredibly difficult, confusing, boring, exciting, happy, painful, easy, or sad? We must never forget that, along with an abundant life, Jesus promised troubles so it will be all of those things at one time or another.

Self-help author Louise Hay’s affirmation was, “I am in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing.” While that’s a great way to justify our situation and actions, it’s not true. While they may have been in the right place at the right time, Adam and Eve didn’t do the right thing when they disobeyed God, nor did Jacob when he impersonated Esau, Rachel when she stole her father’s idols, Aaron when he fashioned the golden calf, David when he bedded Bathsheba, Solomon when he amassed his enormous harem, Peter when he denied knowing Jesus, the Pharisees when they falsely accused Jesus, or John Mark when he abandoned Paul. Sadly, being in the right place at the right time doesn’t mean we’re doing the right thing!

As Christians, what sort of things should we affirm? Rather than turning to Stuart Smalley, self-help authors, or talk show hosts, perhaps we should look to God’s Word to guide us. God’s promise found in Isaiah 41:10 tell us that we can face life with confidence: “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.” We can affirm an attitude of thanksgiving with the words of 1 Chronicles 16:34: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever.” With the words of Ephesians 4:32, we can affirm how we’ll treat others: “Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” The words of 1 Peter 4:8 affirm our love for our neighbors: “Most important of all, continue to show deep love for each other, for love covers a multitude of sins.” Because of Galatians 5:22-23, we can choose to be filled with His love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The words of Psalm 118 affirm that we can know that God is good, His faithful love endures forever, He is our strength and song, and that His love endures forever. Perhaps my favorite affirmation of all is found in verse 24: “This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.” It’s one with which I start my day.

We don’t have to look in a mirror to convince ourselves of our value or that we are loved. We know because the Bible tells us so!

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. [John 3:16-17 (NLT)

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:38-39 (NLT)]

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