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PieThis past week, I have joined many other Christians in observing the Days of Unleavened Bread. The entire festival points us to the salvation offered to us by Jesus Christ, He who can truly make us perfect and without sin. In the days leading up to this feast, we cleaned our home of baking soda, baking powder, yeast, and products containing them. During the Days of Unleavened Bread, we choose to abstain from these products as a reminder of our struggle to remove all sin from our lives. We also eat unleavened bread—which that is made without baking soda, baking powder, or yeast—which is symbolic of sincerity and truth.

When we think of bread that is made without anything to make it rise, it’s easy to think of a thin, tasteless, cracker, like a matzo. But as we who observe these days know, there are all kinds of ways to make unleavened breads and treats. One of my family’s favorites is pie: apple, cherry, blueberry…but especially apple. And as I prepared to make a pie for us to share, I started to think about the lessons we can learn from an unleavened pie crust.

The leaven isn’t really necessary. A homemade pie crust doesn’t need to be leavened (I am always surprised when I run across a recipe that calls for leavening, but they do exist). Pie crusts aren’t supposed to be fluffy, but rather crisp and delicate. In the same way, the sin we are to be putting out of our lives isn’t necessary for us—in fact, it’s the opposite of what we are to be. We are called to fill our lives with the best ingredients: ingredients that help us to live out our faith. The sins we struggle to put out of our lives are unhelpful and get in the way of what we are supposed to do.

The lack of leaven doesn’t mean a lack of taste. When you think of a good pie, you don’t think of something bland or tasteless. You think of flavor, of texture, and maybe even of celebration: something special. “Unleavened” doesn’t automatically mean “unpleasant”. Likewise, we can live lives that are abundant, joyful, and filled with delight. That doesn’t mean we’ll walk a path with no obstacles, but it does mean we don’t need to go around looking mournful and downhearted. Putting sin out allows us plenty of room for the right kind of habits and activities.

The crust isn’t the main thing. As delightful a thing as an apple pie is, the crust is usually not the star of the show. In truly unleavened fashion, the crust is expected to play a supporting role. It doesn’t draw attention to itself with bold flavor or excessive decoration: its purpose is to showcase the contents of the pie. We, also, are expected to practice humility. Our job isn’t to parade ourselves in some show of greatness; instead, we are to be a showcase of Christ within us.

As the Days of Unleavened Bread come to a close, I hope we can all take with us the lessons we have learned in this special season and put them to work in our lives. And perhaps, the next time we take a bite of pie, we can be reminded of the some of the lessons of being unleavened.

I don’t remember what you wore last weekend. Was it knee-length? Longer? Shorter? I’m not sure. It might have had short sleeves, or spaghetti straps. I honestly can’t recall.

I don’t know whether you loaded your potluck plate with brownies and meatballs or just ate salad (I was busy juggling a toddler and a plate containing salsa).

It’s possible you’ve lost weight. You might have gained weight. In fact, come to think of it, I couldn’t reliably guess what you weigh (I’d make a lousy courtroom witness).

Here’s the thing. I didn’t have time to notice all those things.

See, I was busy noticing that you arrived for Sabbath services in plenty of time to fellowship beforehand—not rushing in at the last minute with your coffee in hand, scouring the room for a seat before the hymns began.

I noticed that you sang the hymns with gusto, as though it were you and God alone instead of a congregation.

I noticed how engaged you were by the sermon. You were “listening with your eyes,” and nodding thoughtfully. Your notebook was full of notes and scripture references, and I couldn’t help peeking at your Bible, with its underlines and notes to yourself in the margin.

Oh, and you might have been the girl I saw holding someone’s toddler during the service while her husband served on the sound crew. What a blessing for that mother to have an extra pair of hands!

But then, after services I was watching how you waited to go through the potluck line until almost everyone else in church had gone through. Or maybe I was distracted by your hurrying to refill the napkin dispenser instead of waiting for someone else to do it. I was busy admiring that you knew your way around the kitchen…you obviously have spent some time working in there.

Of course, I didn’t miss that you mingled with everyone…you spent time with friends in your age group, but I also noticed you in conversation with everyone, from the kindergartener who told you about his trains to the oldest member of our congregation. I have to confess that I eavesdropped just a little, and I heard you talking about the sermon, and mentioning how it really fit well with what you’d been reading that week and this other message you had heard online by a different pastor.

I’m sorry I didn’t notice your dress. I’ll confess: I was too busy watching who you are. And to tell the truth, I was also making the mental note that I could improve in a few of the areas where you already excel. I have no idea what you wore or how you styled your hair, because the only thing that stood out was your character. And it is beautiful.

Judgement Free

I joined a gym a year ago, after having successfully avoided gyms for most of my adult life. Few things make me feel as awkward as walking into a room filled with exercise equipment of mysterious usage and shape. I’m not in shape, graceful, or athletic; the sight of so many people who seem to know what they’re doing emphasizes my self-doubt every time I set foot into a gym. This gym, though, claimed to be “judgment-free”, with rules to reinforce the idea that they are a gym for everyone: no skimpy clothing. No banging the weights around. No exaggerated huffing and puffing during workouts.

I had my doubts, but I decided to give it a shot. To my surprise, the rules and the atmosphere do seem to create an atmosphere free of judgment. The philosophy is that everyone at the gym is there for the same basic reason: to increase their fitness and health. Thus, no participant should be judging any other participant for where they are in the process, for how heavy or light their workout seems to be, or how hard they seem to be working. Each person should be focused on their own goal, not on anyone else’s goal or progress.

It reminds me of the church community. In many ways, we are to be a “judgment-free” zone as well. It doesn’t mean we suspend our wise discernment at the door. Just like at the gym, we still have to discern right from wrong: if someone is breaking the rules or using the equipment in a way that is harmful to themselves or others, we have a responsibility to step in. The key is in avoiding condemnation. And that, too, is in line with how the church community should function.

Consider Romans 14. In this passage, Paul is writing specifically about some other issues that had cropped up amongst the believers. But he discourages contempt of one another as he writes, “Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand…But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written:

‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall confess to God.’

So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way” (Romans 14:4, 10-13).

The issues Paul addressed were not issues of the law; rather, they were issues of how one applied God’s word in one’s life. Indeed, the same can be said of many issues that divide our church communities today. Just like those who go to a gym, we are all in various places in our journey towards our goal. Some of the specifics of our workouts are going to be different, but the ultimate goal is the same. There is definitely a place for taking a brother aside when he is clearly choosing to live in ways contrary to God’s instruction; but there is no place for holding our brethren in contempt. When we do that, we act as though they are ours to judge—and while we’re scrutinizing their actions, we are taking our eyes off of our own work. We must remember that all of us will give an account for how we applied God’s word in our lives.

The judgment-free idea goes beyond avoiding contempt: it also discourages intimidation. When I walk into the gym, everyone else looks like they have their fitness plan together. It takes a lot of courage to stand next to an actual runner who is on the elliptical and then drag myself through an obviously less-strenuous workout. If I had to also compete with sneering attitudes, I would have quit within the first month.

Church is the same way. When we struggle, it’s easy to see our brethren as people who have it all together. And if those people also see themselves as those who are superior to us, we will never be able to ask for help from one another. The judging gets in the way of love. The contempt becomes a stumbling block—and it may just be big enough to knock us out of the race all together.

The bottom line? Our churches should be the safest place we could ever be. Safe because there are rules that we all must follow: God’s commands. Safe because we have a model we all must work from: Christ’s example. Safe because we recognize that we are all there as people who don’t deserve to be there, but have been called by the grace of God. Safe because we are each dedicated to completing our own work well—knowing that we will give account—and because we assume that others have that same goal, even if some of our specific choices aren’t the same. Safe because we devote ourselves to love and outgoing concern, one for another.

Let us dedicate ourselves to reaching out to one another in love and help. Let us remember that we all stand or fall before God, not one another, and that we all must give account. May we all complete our journey successfully.

 

 

I remember distinctly the feeling of having my joy deflated. I was walking down the hallway of the elementary school where I worked, and it was the first day of school. I loved my job, I loved the students, and I was just so happy to be right where I was that my joy was written on my face. Two women walked down the hallway toward me, and as they passed, one commented to the other, “Just wait until a month from now. She won’t be smiling THEN.”

She meant her words to be funny, but they really hurt. In a moment, my joy went from just plain joy to being something suspect, something temporary and a little ridiculous. It hurt to have my very positive feelings unappreciated. I was still happy to be where I was—and confident that I would still be joyful a month from that date—but I felt deflated.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a solitary experience. We don’t have to spend long in any environment—work, school, shopping, watching TV—to see that same kind of response to happiness and joy:

“What are YOU so happy about?”

“Yeah? What makes it a GOOD morning?”

“Well, just wait [until your kids are teenagers…until your first fight…until you’re 40]. THEN you won’t be so chipper.”

It has happened so often that I have developed my own term for the statements: “joy-jabbers”. The thrust of the joy-jabbers is that one’s joy or happiness is based on something temporary, and that when the circumstances change, the joy will be replaced with discouragement. Ultimately, the underlying implication is that the joyful or happy person is, well, not too smart. Because if they were smart, they would be just as miserable as everyone else.  In fact, if you type “happy people” and “stupid” into a search engine, you will find lots of people talking about whether happy people are really stupid or only perceived that way.

So what does all this have to do with the Christian journey? I think there’s a connection. Now, joy and happiness are not the same thing. Happiness tends to be based on outside circumstances: it’s a sunny day, I had my coffee, and I got a letter from my friend in the mail. Happiness! Joy, however, is a deep-seated emotion that isn’t based on outside circumstances. In the Christian walk, our joy is based on faith that God will keep His promises to His people, and that He will care for His flock, no matter how the outside circumstances look.

The Bible is full of references to joy. The Psalms repeatedly encourage the reader to be joyful in the Lord and to shout for joy because of His righteous deeds. Isaiah 35:10 points to a day when the ransomed of God shall return with joy and gladness. The apostle Paul wrote that those who ministered to the Corinthians strove to be helpers of their joy (1 Corinthians 1:24) by establishing them in faith, and joy is listed as a fruit of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5:22.

We live in difficult times, and we will all have experiences that will discourage us or make us temporarily unhappy, or even joyless. What should our attitude be towards those who are cheerful, happy, and joyful when we don’t feel the same way? Again, the Bible offers instruction. Paul writes in Romans 12:15 that we ought to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep”. It is entirely appropriate to sometimes be sad, and we ought not be swift to force those who mourn into false cheer. But just as importantly, when someone is joyful, we ought to encourage that joy instead of seeking to snatch it away.

The next time you are tempted to answer a positive statement with a negative commentary, think instead about rejoicing with that joy. Remember the Biblical perspective on joy and gladness, and resist the temptation to be a joy-jabber.

We live in a time of rapid technological advances, when staying in touch with one another through our phones and computers is easier than ever before. With just a few keystrokes or clicks of the mouse, we can bring the world into our living room. And with so much convenience, even devout churchgoers sometimes ask, “Why bother going to church?” If we can hear the same sermons in the comfort of our homes, or even watch church services online, and round it out with our own favorite worship music, is there any reason to actually go to church?

The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Why?

    1. The Bible instructs us to assemble.
      The author of Hebrews instructs readers to “…consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Not only are we told not to forsake assembling together, but are also told why we should:
    2. It’s not just about us.
      You can get a lot of information from a sermon online. You can learn, you can feel closer to God, you can have your faith strengthened. What you can’t do by sitting at home and listening to sermons is help anyone else. The writer’s instruction in Hebrews 10:24-25 doesn’t stop at telling us to assemble; he explains that instead of forsaking assembly, we ought to consider one another to stir up love, to stir up good works, and to exhort each other. Church services aren’t just about getting our spiritual needs met: they are a way for us to make sure that others are getting their spiritual needs met, as well as their physical and emotional needs.
    3. The church isn’t just a place, it’s people.When we are baptized, we aren’t baptized into a building, or into an organization: we are baptized into the body of Christ. Paul writes that “by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…in fact the body is not one member but many…” (1 Corinthians 12:13,14). In this chapter, Paul reiterates several times the thought that we are one body but also individual members. While he is talking about the spiritual gifts that God has endowed on the members of the body, he also brings out that we are to be a body in unity: “…God composed the body…that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another…” (1 Corinthians 12:24,25). We are not called to be isolated individuals, all doing our own thing: God called us to put us together as a united body.
    4. Spiritual gifts are used when we are together.
      Writing in Romans 12, Paul states, “we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (Romans 12:5). Again, Paul’s main point is to explain the diversity of spiritual gifts, but how they ought to work together to bring unity. The concept of spiritual gifts is an important one, individually and for the church. In Ephesians, Paul expounds on why Christ gave the gifts:“And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:11-16).The gifts aren’t given to benefit the recipient: the gifts are given so that the recipient can benefit others, in the context of Christ’s body, the church. For every part to do its share, the body has to be knit together as one. And that can’t happen if various parts of the body scatter themselves away from the body.
    5. Christ attended church.
      Luke writes that Christ “came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read…” (Luke 4:16). If anyone could have claimed that church held nothing for Him, surely it would have been Christ. What need did the Messiah have for assembling together? But here we see that this appearance in the synagogue with the assembly was not a one-time occurrence: it was His custom.

When we choose to follow Christ, we are baptized into the body of believers, a unified group of individual members. We are given spiritual gifts to help one another and to help unify that body. We are told to care for one another; we are even told that we become members of one another. We are told not to forsake assembling together, but rather to use those assemblies to stir one another to good works. When we come together for weekly services, we also follow our spiritual Head’s example. We must bear these things in mind and then put them into practice. See you at church!

Tomorrow evening, my husband and I will be taking part in the annual commemoration of Christ’s death for us: Passover. As I prepare for this Holy Day, of course, I think about Christ’s ultimate sacrifice: His death by crucifixion. Whenever I think of Christ laying down His life, it is this final sacrifice that first comes to mind.

This year, however, I have come to realize anew that Christ laid down his life on earth as a living sacrifice: long before He died on the cross, He had given away His earthly life for the sake of those He came to save. The accounts of His ministry record travel, constant teaching, loss of reputation, bearing of insults, healing, comforting, encouraging, correcting. His sleep was disturbed (Matthew 8:24-25), His privacy interrupted  (Matthew 14:13), His name scorned (Mark 3:20-22). He did all these things, all the while knowing that those He served would, in His hour of need, desert Him.

My change in perspective regarding how Christ laid down His life made me look at Paul’s instruction in Romans 12 differently, too. Paul writes that we ought to present our bodies “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1). He continues in the vein of how we should live our lives: not conformed to the world; using the gifts God has given us for the benefit of others; acting in love, humility, diligence, patience, repaying no one evil for evil, living at peace with one another.

I find that I am far more likely to be willing to make big sacrifices than little ones. If I have to massively rearrange my schedule, or change where I’m living, or do something extremely challenging, I can at least feel noble about it. At least in my own head, I can label that a sacrifice and feel good about it (and honestly, because I’m human, even a little smug about it; “Look what I’m doing! Aren’t I so awesome to do this!”). It is the rest of Romans 12, the rest of the Bible, that I struggle with. To be treated unfairly without making a big fuss? To let someone else have honor instead of me? To speak patiently and kindly to people who are provoking or rude? To be diligent at work, even when the task seems tedious and pointless? To give up my time to help someone else, when I have things of my own to attend to?

Those smaller sacrifices are much harder for me to make, because they don’t really feel like sacrifices as much as just, well, unfair. And yet when I read Romans 12, when I read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s life, it becomes clear that this is God’s expectation of me. God expects us to follow the example of His only begotten Son, who lived a life of constant small sacrifices so that we—who didn’t deserve His kindness—could have the opportunity of salvation. If we bear His name, we are called to live that same life of small sacrifices.

This year, as I prepare for the Passover, I am thinking about the small sacrifices that I need to embrace with more diligence. I may never be called to lay my life down in the ultimate sense; but I—along with all Christians—am called to lay down my life in small daily sacrifices which are, as Peter wrote in 1 Peter 2:5, “…spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Let us embrace the opportunity to offer these sacrifices because of our love for our Redeemer.

It is time for a true confession: I don’t like running. When I began a training program late last August, it was with the hope that I would grow to love running. After all, for many of my friends, it is a favorite activity, something that they look forward to and greatly enjoy! But after almost six months, I have come to the conclusion that there is not a single thing I actually enjoy about running. Nevertheless, several times a week I lace up my shoes, adjust the knee and ankle braces, and set a slow and steady course around the neighborhood, or while away some time on the treadmill with cartoons on DVD.

“If you don’t love it, you won’t stick with it,” I was told. Well, I have stuck with it, but do I love it? At first glance, I would probably answer, “No.” But the real truth is that I don’t enjoy running, but I do love the process that it is a part of: the process of making me stronger, faster, and fitter. And I think that some of my reasons for continuing my running program—even though I don’t enjoy it—can be compared to some of the reasons that we can embrace the race of faith, even though parts of it are not enjoyable.

Commitment: When I began running, I made a promise to myself that I would see it to completion. The stated goal of the program was to make me able to run 5K in about 115 days. I knew it would take me a little longer to do this, since I couldn’t always run right along with the schedule (hello, life!). But I committed myself to following the program until I really could run 5K. Remembering my promise to myself helps me to stay motivated when I really don’t want to run.

When we are baptized, we make a longer commitment: a lifelong promise to God that we will follow His ways. And unlike my running program, there aren’t scheduled days off or sick days: no matter how we feel, or how life treats us, we have to get up and get going. It’s important to remember that commitment and let the memory of the promise motivate us to keep going.

Vision: My running program has a goal, a stopping point, a place I want to be. I want to be able to run, if not fast, then at least without flailing and gasping. I want to complete an official 5K. I want to be stronger and I want to fit in my clothes better (or even shop for some new, smaller ones!). All of these things feed into my motivation. The short-term of running every day is not fun for me, but the long-term vision is a very attractive goal. When I want to quit, I remind myself of what lies at the end: achievement!

As Christians, we also have a vision: the Kingdom of God. No more sorrow and no more death. The just reign of Jesus Christ, who will right all wrongs and rule with mercy and justice. The harsher the world becomes, the more attractive those promises are. Right now, we struggle against injustice, sin, and heartache. But we struggle against them because we know that there is a future where those things will no longer exist.

Benefits: No matter how hard the run, I do know that there are short-term benefits. I have developed a new bond with people who actually enjoy running. I’m seeing my weight-loss results gradually being accomplished. I am less afraid to participate in a sporting event, and less apprehensive when photos are taken. And if nothing else, I have the satisfaction of completing a hard task over and over again.

In just the same way, there are short-term benefits to God’s way of life—far more than I have obtained in running. Although the journey is difficult, God’s way brings peace of mind, joy, love…all those lovely fruits of the Holy Spirit. It lets us form special bonds with other Christians, and gives us keys to happier, more fulfilling relationships. Following God gives us hope and a better perspective on ourselves and on the world around us.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Hebrews about some of the heroes of faith who had gone before, all of whom had commitment and vision and knew the benefits of God’s way, even when this life treated them horribly. The ultimate hero of faith is Jesus Christ, who endured a much harder run than any of us will ever experience. We can look to His example—and the examples of faithful heroes from the Bible, or whom we know—to help us to run our own race and achieve our goal. “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1).

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