Silence and Sabbath

Sabbath Image

When was the last time that you experience silence? Not just quiet, but actual, peaceful silence. The kind that allows you to feel yourself breathe, listen to your heartbeat, and embrace your alive-ness a little bit more.

Sabbath was created as a time for rest. We’ve heard this from the pulpit over and over again — on the seventh day God rested, so we ought to rest as well. For many of us, though, the purpose of such a “day of rest” has changed from actually resting to going to church. It’s as though once we’ve attended our church service, we have “Sabbath-ed,” and we can proceed on with our Sundays as we would any other day. But how is that restful?

A true Sabbath in many ways demands rest. If we were to Sabbath as Orthodox Jews do, we would shut down our phones, email, TVs, and go off the grid for 24 hours. We wouldn’t drive our cars or spend hours cooking or finally catch up on laundry. With these options eliminated, how would you spend your time? The Internet and TV are a huge crutch for me — they ensure that my brain is constantly active and stimulated. To shut those off would be a huge change of pace. But it might also encourage my body, mind, and spirit to rest.

In Matthew 12, Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath and encounters a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees then ask Jesus if the Torah allows him to heal the man’s hand on the Sabbath (v. 9-10). Jesus responds by asking them if they would rescue one of their sheep that had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath, and then states, “How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! So the Law allows a person to do what is good on the Sabbath” (v. 11-12). And Jesus heals the man’s hand (v. 13).

We are allowed to do what is good on the Sabbath. I don’t know about you, but my Sabbaths are often filled with whatever is typical of the rest of my week. Sure, they start at church, but afterward they contain going out to lunch, cooking dinner, calling friends, checking email, tidying the house, watching movies, and ultimately, lots of work.

As my husband and I were discussing Sabbath this morning, he pointed out to me that some evidence exists that early Christians would practice Sabbath on Saturday, and then also worship together on Sunday morning to celebrate the Resurrection. It’s like a mini-Easter every weekend. While most of us, including myself, will find plenty of excuses to not practice such radical resting, I encourage us today to reflect on how we can integrate more restful practices. Whether it is turning off our TVs, computers, and phones for a period of time, sitting at the kitchen table for meals, reading the Bible together with our loved ones and on our own, or going for a walk, may we find ways of honoring the Sabbath and increasing our sense of peacefulness and rest every week.


Building a Fence

Fence Photo

Have you ever given something up for Lent? My husband and I decided to this year, and we have also added a few healthy practices into our daily routines, in an effort to set these 40 days apart as especially sacred and worshipful.

As a child I gave up chocolate for Lent one year. I thought I was doing really well, and then one day my mom saw me with a lollipop in my mouth, and asked which flavor it was. I responded, “Vanilla and…chocolate… But it doesn’t count! It’s a lollipop, not real chocolate!” I desperately tried to justify getting as close as possible to eating chocolate without actually consuming it. Looking back, I think we do this quite often: we step right up to the border between what is good and bad, healthy and unhealthy, pure and sinful, just to see how close we can get.

The fifth chapter of Matthew contains six texts that are often called the “Antitheses.” They’re the, “You have heard it said… But I say to you…” verses. The issue with calling them “Antitheses,” though, is that it implies Jesus is saying something different  or antithetical, in contrast to what was said before. That is not in fact the case. Instead, Jesus intensifies what was already written in the Old Testament. Jesus uses this framework to discuss murder, adultery, divorce, vowing, vengeance, and loving our enemies.

Jewish tradition after the time of Jesus contains the idea of “making a fence around the Torah” (see Amy-Jill Levine’s Jewish Annotated New Testament, pg. 11, and m. Pirkei Avot 1.1). The idea is that rather than getting as far as we can without breaking the laws of the Torah, we should instead build a fence around the laws of the Torah to guard them and to keep ourselves from breaking them. That is what Jesus is doing in these, “You have heard it said… But I say to you” moments.

For example, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28). Jesus’ command to not lust puts a fence around the Torah command to not commit adultery, since lust is a necessary element in cheating on one’s spouse. The logic is that if you never even think about committing adultery, then you ensure that you will never commit it physically.

Moreover, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matt. 5: 38-39). The “eye for an eye” text in Leviticus 24:19-20 was initially written to prevent violence from escalating — it says that the injured person can balance out the infliction, but cannot impose any additional harm to his aggressor. Jesus then builds a fence around the Leviticus command by instructing us to not retaliate at all, thereby ensuring that we don’t do additional damage.

These texts aren’t about Jesus receiving a new revelation about the Torah that says the “old” laws aren’t good anymore  — rather, Jesus wants us to protect the laws God has given us. In those moments when we could stretch the truth, could push the boundaries a little further, he tells us to step back and to honor the instructions we’ve been given. To build a fence around them. And ultimately, building that fence not only protects and nurtures our relationship with God, but it also encourages loyalty, trust, and faithfulness in ourselves and in our relationships with others.


Finding the Words for Love

Love Photo

“You are a beautiful, talented, brilliant, powerful musk ox.” — Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation

Finding the words to express the emotions we feel for those we love can be difficult at times, can’t it? The English language has provided us with only one word to encapsulate all of the feelings and the force contained in the multiplicity of relationships we maintain — the word is love. English is really lagging here — while most languages have at least two ways of expressing love, Sanscrit has 96 and Ancient Persian has 80. Can you imagine having 96 ways to tell someone you love them?

The New Testament utilizes three words that translate to English as love. I’m going to discuss them in this post, and then show how they play out in our everyday lives. My hope is that we can contemplate which types of love are most prominent in our relationships, and then consider how we can increase each of them in the most healthy, whole ways so as to ultimately love God, others, and ourselves even more. So here we go…

The first word used is phileo love, or brotherly love. It’s a love based on fondness, affection, appreciation, and companionship. One of the most powerful uses of phileo love in the New Testament occurs in John 11, in the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. In verse 3, Mary and Martha approach Jesus and say, “Lord, the one you love is ill.” Jesus takes a bit of time before he goes to care for Lazarus, and by the time he arrives, Lazarus has already died. Upon seeing Mary crying, Jesus begins weeping as well (v. 35). That is phileo love — one who shows up, who is brought to tears, and ultimately, who brings life and light in dark moments.

The next form of love that appears in the New Testament is storge love. This word doesn’t show up nearly as often as phileo, but it demonstrates a distinctive and foundational form of love, and that is affection or devotion. It can be linked to the love between family members, and the deep loyalty and connection that is sacred in those relationships. One example of storge love shows up in Romans 12:10, which states, “Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other.” The sense of honor, reverence, and belonging all come out of a feeling of storge love.

The final and most common form of love in the New Testament is agapeo love. This is a love based on esteem, on self-giving, and on unconditional well-being. We see this love over and over again verses like “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 5:43), “You shall love the Lord  your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Matt. 12:30), “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

Phileo. Storge. AgapeoFriendship. Devotion. Unconditional Love. This Valentine’s Day most of us will be thinking of those we love. May we use this time to express our appreciation in whatever language we can find for those whom we love, as well as for God and for the Spirit within us.

Coping with The Wilderness

Temptation Photo

As I’m writing this post I am also preparing to bake a King Cake for the first time. A King Cake is a traditional Mardi Gras dessert that’s essentially a hybrid between cinnamon rolls and birthday cake, and it is delicious. I am bringing it to a Mardi Gras-themed Birthday Party and Crawfish Boil tonight. Had we gone the more traditional route, this party would have happened on Tuesday this past week, as it was Mardi Gras: a day dedicated to gorging oneself with food, beverage, and  celebration in preparation for the solemn season of Lent that begins the following day.

Mardi Gras is often associated with the idea of temptation: parades, drinking, food, parties. Yet, the picture of temptation that we see in the biblical text is far different.

Matthew 4:1-11 tells us that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, where he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights and was tempted by the devil. The whole fasting for 40 days and 40 nights thing points us back to Moses in Deuteronomy 8, 9, and a number of other texts, all emphasizing the connection between Moses’ and Jesus’ stories. The temptations that the devil then poses to Jesus are: 1) to turn stones into loaves of bread (he’s hungry from the fasting), 2) to jump off the Temple to prove that he’s the Son of God (Psalm 91 says that the angels would catch him), and 3) to worship the devil, and in return receive power over the entire world. In each instance, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy — the book in which Moses instructs the Israelites on how to best live in relationship with God — to explain why he refuses to give into the temptation.

While we could get into the minutia of each of the temptations and what they mean for us, at the end of the day we have the devil trying to get Jesus to abandon Deuteronomy, the words of Scripture, and therefore to let go of God. The devil tempts Jesus to do something antithetical to what God desires of Jesus and of us.

Jesus wasn’t comfortable when this temptation took place — he was starving and alone in the sweltering heat of the wilderness. I don’t know about you, but it takes so much less than that for me to start doubting and questioning God. There have been times in my life when a good traffic jam could have me asking, “What’s the point, God?!” I’ve become a bit less melodramatic over time, but you get the point: Jesus was actually struggling during his temptation. He easily could have given in — he could have abandoned his faith and his God, and taken actions that would have provided the food he craved, the safety he desired, and power over the earth. Instead, he chose to cling to God by citing the verses that speak of what God desperately wants of us: relationship.

We all have moments of doubt, concern, disbelief, and struggle. They are foundational elements of the complex lives we live. The lesson Jesus demonstrates in his temptation is that we are never alone in those moments — we have been given a guide to strengthen and to lead us in our darkest trials. At the end of the narrative, Matthew writes, “The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him” (4:11). The God who accompanied Jesus during his temptation is the same God who goes with us every moment of our lives. And, in the end, God shows up to provide the comfort, the care, and the love we’ve needed after our time in the wilderness.

Shining Faces

Shine Photo

Confession: I took down my Christmas tree today. I know that the appropriate window of time to take down a Christmas tree closed about three weeks ago, but I just couldn’t do it. My husband and I had a wonderful Christmas season, so we decided to leave our Charlie Brown-esque fake tree up through January, which ultimately turned into February 12th.

The trouble I unexpectedly encountered was that Lent started on February 10th. It stealthily crept up on me faster than I anticipated; before I knew it, Transfiguration Sunday had passed and it was time to impose ashes.

Transfiguration Sunday celebrates the story in Matthew 17 (and chapter 9 of Mark and Luke), in which Jesus takes three of his disciples up a mountain and experiences a physical transformation: “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (v. 2). Moses and Elijah appear, and a cloud forms over all of them, from which a voice proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (v. 5).

Jesus’ face begins shining, his clothes turn white, and God claims Jesus as His Beloved Son. This story is undoubtedly miraculous, and it’s also not the first time we see these kinds of events take place.

The story of the Transfiguration is meant to call us back to Moses in Exodus 24. In it, Moses takes three of his friends up Mount Sinai, where God meets them; God then calls Moses further up the mountain, where a cloud containing God’s presence settles over the mountain and Moses dwells there (v. 9-18). Ten chapters later, after spending time in God’s presence, Moses descends from Mount Sinai, and his face is shining so brightly that Aaron and others fear him, and he covers his face with a veil (Ex. 34:1-5).

The Transfiguration stories in Exodus and Matthew show us the deep connection between Moses and Jesus; they also demonstrate the fascinating connection between encountering God and having a shiny face. When Moses and Jesus encounter God, they leave the experience glowing. Have you ever felt so loved, so joyful, so connected, so beloved that you felt as though your face actually shined? In the moments after my wedding ceremony, while surrounded by God, my Beloved, and those who love me and who I love the most, I remember feeling the closest to this glowing and shining as I ever had.

When we listen to the quiet voice that whispers to us in prayer, delve into the sacred words of Scripture, give of ourselves to others, meditate on the world around us, worship boldly, or even sing loudly, we encounter the deep and profound love of God. And it can cause us to shine.

Can you think of the last time you shined? A moment in which you felt so close to God, so overwhelmed, so humbled, so celebrated that you felt as though your very face may glow. What led to that moment? What happened afterward? And how can you come to feel that shine again?

Oscar Romero was a Salvadorian Archbishop who was assassinated while celebrating Mass, and he was also known for having a face that seemed to shine. He once said, “When we leave Mass, we ought to go out the way Moses descended Mt. Sinai: with his face shining, with his heart brave and strong to face the world’s difficulties.” So may we find our faces glowing today, strengthened and encouraged by the ever present love and power of God, to go into the world and shine.

Between The Dust

Dust Photo

I’m still in the dust. Yesterday was Ash Wednesday — the set apart time to mark the beginning of Lent, and a distinctive time to remember that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19c). I woke up this morning realizing that myself and all of us are in between the dust. God formed us, breathed life into our nostrils, and now we’re doing the complicated, strange, and beautiful work of living.

Throughout our lives, from the beginning to the end, we are between the dust. As I reflected on this reality, the opening scene from Pixar’s new(ish) movie Inside Out came to mind. The screen starts off blank, and the viewer then watches as the screen’s eyes seem to open for the first time, and two parents come into view. We realize that we are looking out of the eyes of a newborn infant name Riley, and that the narrator herself is the emotion, “Joy.” Joy helps this little infant create happy memories of her parents’ loving and doting faces.

Immediately after that life-breath flows through her lungs, she begins learning about this world that God has gifted her. After she experiences Joy, she also meets Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear, and those characters shape how Riley processes the world, and how all of us process the world.

I was talking with my grandmother yesterday, who is now in her 80’s. She and my grandfather live in an independent living facility, which has blessed them with a plethora of new friends and community. Sadly, one of their good friends died yesterday morning. After I offered her condolences she quietly stated, “This is what happens when you live a long time. People die, because everyone dies.” We see the other side of the dust. Having worked as a hospital chaplain for some years now, I see the other side of the dust quite often. It can happen after weeks of struggle or in the briefest moment, but ultimately, as Ecclesiastes claims, “dust returns to the earth as it was before, and the life-breath returns to God who gave it” (12:7). Regardless of where we are on our life journeys, we are always between the dust.

Contemplating our “dustiness” often does not feel great; it can provoke questions of existence and feelings of discomfort. As we consider what we’re doing with the dust and the breath that God has given us, we also see how our hopes and dreams match up with reality. We have been given the Lenten season as a time to do that difficult work of stepping back, looking around, and making some changes so as to reconcile and to energize our relationships with God, with others, and with ourselves. So may we today enter into that sacred process, and begin with the question, “What shall I do while in between the dust?”