Celebrating the Sabbath: Sabbath and Creation

Read: Genesis 2:1-3

 

So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation (Gen. 2:3 NRSV).

“It’s not all about you.”

This caustic comeback has become something of a cliché. Of course, the reason clichés become clichés is because so many people find them to be true.

“It’s not all about you” was never more true than with regard to the Bible’s first creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:4a. Contrary to most people’s assumptions, human beings are not the crown of creation. That honor goes to the Sabbath. The fact that so many of us are confused about that fact says a great deal about us.

But what can we say about Sabbath? At least with the other days of creation there are tangible results. Who can forget fruit trees, after all? And then there are the stars, the cattle, and the ever-popular swarming things. Each day is chock full of cool creations, and God seems positively chuffed at how well things have turned out.

When we get to the seventh day, however, the inventory seems to come to an abrupt end. “God rested,” it says. Our busy 21st-century brains hardly know how to picture this. Should we imagine God in an Adirondack chair drinking a micro-brew? That image might be less misleading than the boring blank canvas that is our typical impression of Sabbath.

Once again, the problem is not with the Sabbath itself, but with our misconceptions of it. When the medieval rabbi, Rashi, considered this conundrum, he suggested that the Sabbath was actually the last thing God created. Rather than an absence, menuha (rest) connotes a presence. It is not emptiness, but fullness. Imagine a sphere filled with tranquility, serenity, and peace. Imagine that God invites us into this sphere so that we can share that exquisite shalom with all the rest of God’s good creation. Imagine.

In his marvelous book, Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight, Norman Wirzba reminds us that Sabbath is far more than a “divine afterthought.” In his words, God’s rest “is not simply a cessation from activity but rather the lifting up and celebration of everything.”[1]

Suddenly Sabbath sounds not just attractive, but essential.

Many of us live like we are being chased by a train. We complete one task, but we can’t take time to celebrate because we are already late for our next deadline. Weeks go by, months, years, then decades. Like the Energizer Bunny, we keep going and going and going.

But hear the good news: it’s not all about us. It is about all creation, invited into a sphere of rest, tranquility, and delight.

Why on earth would we say no?

Prayer: Forgive us, O God, for rejecting your gift for so long. Show us how to enter your sphere of rest, tranquility, and delight.

[1] Norman Wirzba, Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), p. 33.

 

Introduction to the Celebrating the Sabbath series:

Why on earth would contemporary Christians want to explore what it means to celebrate the Sabbath? Even the word “Sabbath” sounds like something from another century. And for the most part, it is! To the extent that we hear the word at all any more, it’s used as an old-fashioned way of referring to Sunday—the “Sabbath Day.” Unless, of course, we have Jewish friends or live in close proximity to Jewish communities—in which case we may overhear an occasional “Shabbat Shalom” greeting on the way to the parking lot after work on a Friday afternoon. Or, if you’re like me, you may have found yourself puzzling over the “Sabbath” setting on your new stove. In all of these instances, Sabbath may strike us as something strange or old-fashioned—something that doesn’t have much to do with us as contemporary Christians.

Or worse, some people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, it conjures up unhappy memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside as a child—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On her first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath Day!

Hopefully, stories like these are becoming things of the past. But just because Sabbath sounds like something from another century doesn’t mean we don’t need to recover God’s invitation to Sabbath for our own century. In fact, everything points to our desperate need to recover God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, our email is ever with us; friends and colleagues get testy when we don’t reply right away. Like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess we find ourselves wondering, “What is a week end?” Sporting events, grocery shopping, homework, television, and social engagements crowd into every “leisure” hour. And if we are at all involved in church we may experience Sundays as the most exhausting day of all.

In this series, we will explore the largely unopened gift Sabbath. Read it if you long to recover—or discover—God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight.

Celebrating the Sabbath: Sabbath and Slavery

Read: Exodus 31:12-18

 

The LORD said to Moses: You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you (Ex. 31:12-13 NRSV).

Some years ago I remember thinking, “I need to work harder at keeping Sabbath.”

The irony of this observation was not lost on me. Still, the resolution was fleeting—as so many resolutions are.

Then I read an article by Ellen Davis that made me think again about the consequences of being a Sabbath scoff-law. The title alone got my attention: “Slaves or Sabbath-Keepers? A Biblical Perspective on Human Work.”[1] Really? I thought. Is the choice that stark?

Judge for yourself.

Davis points out that the book of Exodus offers two powerful examples of work. There are 13 chapters of “bad work” (slavery in Egypt), and 13 chapters of “good work” (the instructions and construction of the Tabernacle). The differences between this “unmatched pair” are instructive, to say the least. But one of the most striking contrasts is that good work has limits. The consequences of ignoring these limits are stunning. To put it bluntly: work without Sabbath is slavery.

That’s the view of Exodus from thirty thousand feet. Let’s lose some altitude and look more closely at the passages that cluster around the “good work” of the Tabernacle.

When God finishes giving Moses the instructions for the Tabernacle in Exodus 25-31, God makes it clear that good work makes room for celebrating the Sabbath (31:12-17). God reiterates this at the beginning of the Tabernacle’s actual construction (35:1-3). Think for a moment how important—and freeing—this would be to a group of former slaves. It’s as if God is saying, “I freed you from Pharaoh’s industrial killing machine, but there’s still work to do. It’s good work, but even good work needs to have limits. Look at me! Even I rested after the six days of creation! So you must rest as you work on the Tabernacle.”[2]

Even good work needs to have limits. What a wonderful shock that must have been for those former slaves. But it’s a wonderful—and sobering—shock for us as well.

One of the hardest things for us to get our minds around as Christians is that there can be too much of a good thing, even where good works are concerned. No one will dispute that preparing meals, taking our kids to their sporting events, preaching a sermon, or volunteering at the soup kitchen aren’t good—and important—things to do. Yet, even good things need limits. If our lives are so crammed full of good deeds that there is no room left for Sabbath, then something is seriously wrong.

It’s more than a little unnerving to realize that we may have allowed ourselves to slip back into a kind of slavery—even if we’re filling our time with things that are intended to honor both God and our neighbor. Still, it’s a little like that old science experiment with the frog and the hot water. No self-respecting frog would respond well to being dropped into a beaker of hot water. But if the frog is placed in cool water that’s gradually heated up, it may stay put until it’s too late.

How have so many of us allowed this to happen? The answer to this is probably too complex to answer here. But I suspect that there are three things that combine to “turn up the heat” for most of us:

  • First, we don’t think that Sabbath applies to us as Christians.
  • Second, we are part of a culture that increasingly equates “busy-ness” with “worth,” and
  • Third, we genuinely want to do good.

Yet, for whatever reason, many of us find ourselves back in Egypt, trying to make bricks without straw. As one busy pastor remarked, “I feel like my life has no margins. Ministry has become my master.”

In another context, Paul put it this way: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).

 

So, how about it? Do you need to work harder at keeping Sabbath, too? Instead of a resolution, let me suggest beginning that “work” with this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. It is intended for the end of the day, but it as good a start to Sabbath as any I know.

 

Prayer:             O God our Creator,

                        by whose mercy and might

                        the world turns safely into darkness

                        and returns again to light:

                        We give into your hands our unfinished tasks,

                        our unsolved problems,

                        and our unfulfilled hopes,

                        knowing that only those things which you bless will prosper.

                        To your great love and protection

                        we commit each other

                        and all those for whom we have prayed,

                        knowing that you alone are our sure defender,

                        through Jesus Christ our Lord.

                        Amen

 

 

Introduction to the Celebrating the Sabbath series:

Why on earth would contemporary Christians want to explore what it means to celebrate the Sabbath? Even the word “Sabbath” sounds like something from another century. And for the most part, it is! To the extent that we hear the word at all any more, it’s used as an old-fashioned way of referring to Sunday—the “Sabbath Day.” Unless, of course, we have Jewish friends or live in close proximity to Jewish communities—in which case we may overhear an occasional “Shabbat Shalom” greeting on the way to the parking lot after work on a Friday afternoon. Or, if you’re like me, you may have found yourself puzzling over the “Sabbath” setting on your new stove. In all of these instances, Sabbath may strike us as something strange or old-fashioned—something that doesn’t have much to do with us as contemporary Christians.

Or worse, some people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, it conjures up unhappy memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside as a child—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On her first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath Day!

Hopefully, stories like these are becoming things of the past. But just because Sabbath sounds like something from another century doesn’t mean we don’t need to recover God’s invitation to Sabbath for our own century. In fact, everything points to our desperate need to recover God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, our email is ever with us; friends and colleagues get testy when we don’t reply right away. Like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess we find ourselves wondering, “What is a week end?” Sporting events, grocery shopping, homework, television, and social engagements crowd into every “leisure” hour. And if we are at all involved in church we may experience Sundays as the most exhausting day of all.

In this series, we will explore the largely unopened gift Sabbath. Read it if you long to recover—or discover—God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight.

[1] Ellen F. Davis “Slaves or Sabbath-Keepers? A Biblical Perspective on Human Work,” Anglican Theological Review 83 (2001).

[2] This is obviously a paraphrase. I owe Ellen Davis for the phrase, “industrial killing machine.”

Celebrating the Sabbath: Why Should Christians Care about Sabbath?

Introduction:

Why on earth would contemporary Christians want to explore what it means to celebrate the Sabbath? Even the word “Sabbath” sounds like something from another century. And for the most part, it is! To the extent that we hear the word at all any more, it’s used as an old-fashioned way of referring to Sunday—the “Sabbath Day.” Unless, of course, we have Jewish friends or live in close proximity to Jewish communities—in which case we may overhear an occasional “Shabbat Shalom” greeting on the way to the parking lot after work on a Friday afternoon. Or, if you’re like me, you may have found yourself puzzling over the “Sabbath” setting on your new stove. In all of these instances, Sabbath may strike us as something strange or old-fashioned—something that doesn’t have much to do with us as contemporary Christians.

Or worse, some people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, it conjures up unhappy memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside as a child—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On her first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath Day!

Hopefully, stories like these are becoming things of the past. But just because Sabbath sounds like something from another century doesn’t mean we don’t need to recover God’s invitation to Sabbath for our own century. In fact, everything points to our desperate need to recover God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, our email is ever with us; friends and colleagues get testy when we don’t reply right away. Like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess we find ourselves wondering, “What is a week end?” Sporting events, grocery shopping, homework, television, and social engagements crowd into every “leisure” hour. And if we are at all involved in church we may experience Sundays as the most exhausting day of all.

In this series, we will explore the largely unopened gift Sabbath. Read it if you long to recover—or discover—God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight.

 

Why Should Christians Care about Sabbath?

 

 

Read: Luke 4:16-22

When [Jesus] came to Nazareth…he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom” (v. 16, NRSV).

When I was a teenager, I remember my grandmother saying to me, “Carol, pretty soon you’re going to have to stop burning the candle at both ends.” Forty years later I’m finally figuring out what she meant. Human beings—or all of God’s creatures for that matter—are not designed to be constantly “on.” We need time that is set aside for rest, reflection, and communion with others, with nature, and with God.

What a coincidence! God has designed just such a time, and it’s called Sabbath. Never mind that we’ve abused it or ignored it or misunderstood it in the past. The invitation still stands, and we desperately need to accept it—as individuals, as Christian communities, and as a culture.

So, if Sabbath is something we need, and if Sabbath is something God has woven into the very fabric of creation (see Gen. 2:1-3), why don’t we pay much attention to it anymore? Or to put it more positively: why should Christians care about Sabbath?

The short answer is: Jesus did. As Luke 4:16 illustrates, Jesus’ own Sabbath observance involved visiting the synagogue (see also Mk. 1:21and Lk. 13:10). Yes, he tangled with religious leaders who objected to some of his Sabbath activities, but to these nay-sayers he simply pointed out that “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” Then he calmly reminded them that he was, in fact, “lord of the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:23-28).

Jesus’ early followers continued to observe the Sabbath, and often proclaimed the Gospel at Sabbath synagogue gatherings (Acts 13:14-16; 17:1-3). These gatherings would have happened on Saturday—the Sabbath Day. Sunday—the Lord’s Day—was also a day set apart for honoring Jesus’ resurrection, which, according to all of the gospels, had happened on a Sunday.

As Christianity began to spread into the Gentile world, we can assume that celebrating the Sabbath was one of those things that created some tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians.  In Colossians 2:16-19, for instance, Paul counsels the Christians in Colossae not to “let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons or Sabbaths.” Yet, this is a far cry from a condemnation of the Sabbath, which Christians from a Jewish background continued to observe.

It wasn’t until 321 C.E. that the newly-converted Roman Emperor Constantine declared that ‘the two should become one,’ so to speak. One wonders if he was worried about workers taking two days “off.” But in any case, he conflated the “Sabbath Day” and the “Lord’s Day,” and Christians have been following his lead ever since. To the extent that we have a “day of rest,” it is now supposed to be on Sunday.

What was lost in that sweeping decision so many centuries ago? Is it possible for contemporary Christians to recover those losses?

In this series, we will explore such questions. At the risk of giving too much away, I think it’s fair to say that such a recovery is not only possible, but urgent.

There, Grandma—I hope you’re happy.

Prayer: Gracious God, we are weary and heavy laden. Grant us rest.

Welcoming the Stranger: Safe Passage

Story:

At the height of the Mediterranean refugee crisis in late 2015, an ecumenical group of Italian Christians banded together to establish Humanitarian Corridors. Since that time, over 1500 refugees have been given safe and legal access to new lives in a new country.  Priority is given to victims of persecution, torture, and violence, families with children, and people with illnesses or other disabilities. Similar efforts have also begun in France and Belgium, and at this writing (June 2019) there is reason to hope that another 50,000 people may be allowed into European host countries through similar “corridors.”

The drawing above has become the symbol of Humanitarian Corridors. The artist (or as he prefers to be called, “social cartoonist,”) is Francesco Piobbichi. Working on the front lines of the crisis, Piobbichi asks what, to him, is the obvious question: “How could we be indifferent to this pain? In front of all those coffins, we said we wanted to change things. That’s why we had to create “humanitarian corridors” (Drawings from the Border, p. 56).

Bible Reading: Job 29:16-17 (NRSV)

Pelted with a litany false accusations by his so-called friends, Job responds with a list of his own. In that list, he names acts of kindness and justice that reflect the kind of person he truly is. “If I am guilty of anything,” he essentially says, “find me guilty of these things.”

Part of his manifesto includes the words:

I was a father to the needy, and I championed the cause of the stranger.

I broke the fangs of the unrighteous, and made them drop their prey from their teeth.

For refugees awaiting safe passage from torture, war, and despair, such words must seem as distant as the far side of the Mediterranean. Yet, they reflect the compassion and courage that created Humanitarian Corridors. They reflect the heart of all those who ask, “How can we be indifferent to their pain?”

Discussion/Reflection:

  • A verse from the Talmud says, “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” How does this quote relate to the refugee situation? …to indifference?
  • The Italian Christians who banded together to create Humanitarian Corridors were from the Community of Sant Egidio (a lay Catholic association), the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy (FCEI), and the Waldensian and Methodist Church in Italy. Why is it so significant that this was an ecumenical effort? What might happen where you live if Christians worked together?

Action:

  • Learn more about how the rise of hard-right populism relates to the immigration crisis by listening to this podcast from the New York Times’ “The Daily”: Italy First. Don’t miss the story about the teenage girl’s reaction to the news of an immigrant raft going down in the Mediterranean. It comes about 25 minutes into the 32 minute podcast.
  • Read more about the work of Humanitarian Corridors at the web site of Mediterranean Hope

Prayer: Save me from the soothing sin of the empty cultic deed

and the pious, babbling din of the claimed but unlived creed.

Let my actions, Lord, express what my tongue and lips profess.

From the hymn, “As a Chalice,” by Thomas Troeger, 1984

 

Welcoming the Stranger Series

In the last ten years more than 35,000 asylum seekers have died in the Mediterranean. Desperate to escape untenable situations in  countries like, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia, refugees risk both life and livelihood to board rickety boats bound for what they hope will be a new life in Europe. Many of them die within sight of what they hoped would be the promised land.

 

Welcoming the Stranger is a devotional series designed to help Christians connect this unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean with the Bible’s call to “welcome the stranger.” Recognizing that “the stranger” can sometimes be an abstraction that blinds us to the face of Christ, the series approaches the refugee crisis from a personal perspective. Each entry focuses on one person’s story, brought vividly to life by Italian artist and relief worker, Francesco Piobbichi. These stories are then linked to relevant Scripture, prayer, discussion, and action prompts.

 

Immigration is a hot topic around the globe, and the Bible passages in this series speak to wherever we are called to “welcome the stranger.” My specific interest in the Mediterranean context was sparked by a 2016 trip to the island of Lampedusa—a small island off the coast of Sicily that is the scene of so much hope and tragedy for refugees trying to enter Europe via small, unsafe boats. In addition learning about the situation there and the work being done by ecumenical groups like Mediterranean Hope, I spent significant time interviewing Francesco Piobbichi, whose art documents the stories of individual refugees and families who often die trying to reach safety. You can learn more about him and work through the following link: Francesco Piobbichi’s Artwork Each of his “snapshots” tells a story—sometimes of triumph, but often of tragedy:  Piobbichi’s goal is to help people understand this large-scale human tragedy on a more personal level. My goal in this series is to use Piobbichi’s art as a starting point for Bible study and personal reflection/action.

Welcoming the Stranger: I Remember You

 

Story:

Putting flowers on a loved one’s grave is one way to say, “I love you. I miss you. I remember you.”

Francesco Piobbichi’s drawing gives us a brief glimpse into a young boy’s grief. The boy stands at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, which has become a mass grave for over 35,000 refugees in the last decade. The statistic is staggering, yet this glimpse into one young boy’s grief has the power to move us in ways that statistics do not. It makes us wonder who he lost—who he misses—who he remembers. And it may even make us wonder, “What can I do to help?”

Francesco Piobbichi is a relief worker with Mediterranean Hope—and organization that seeks to save and welcome refugees trying to make their way across the Mediterranean. One of the ways Piobbichi has answered the question, “What can I do to help?” is by reminding us that each statistic has a story. He describes it this way: “My drawings tell a story that otherwise would be consigned to the oblivion of the sea” (Drawings from the Border, p. vi).

 

Bible Reading: Psalm 72:12-14 (NRSV)

Psalm 72 is a prayer. In fact, it may be a prayer written by King David for his son and successor, Solomon. Yet, the author of the prayer is not as remarkable as its values. Verses 12-14 cut straight to the heart what makes a good ruler. They may not be what we expect.

For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.

He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.

From oppression and violence he redeems their life;

And precious is their blood in his sight.

Mahatma Ghandi once observed that, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” Psalm 72 seems to have a similar score card for political leaders.

In the caption for his drawing of the young boy with the flowers, Francesco Piobbichi suggests that we place a flower “for all the victims of this barbed sea made murderous by the selfishness of [human beings], from the hunger [for] profit that upsets the world…a flower for every innocent victim of this war of the rich against the poor” (Drawings from the Border, p. 55).

Discussion/Reflection:

  • How would you grade your leaders against the rubric of Psalm 72? Why?
  • Why is it so hard to respond to a statistic like the one cited in the story above? Was the 35,000 number a surprise to you?
  • How do you respond to Piobbichi’s words about selfishness, profit, and “this war of the rich against the poor”?

 

Action:

  • Learn more about Italian politicians’ response to the refugee crisis. Listen to the New York Times’ podcast, “The Daily,” from June 12, 2019: Italy First
  • Listen to a news story about immigration in your context. Grade your political leaders against the rubric of Psalm 72:12-14.

 

Prayer: Help us to hold our leaders accountable, O God.  Give us the courage to imagine the stories behind the statistics.

 

Welcoming the Stranger Series

In the last ten years more than 35,000 asylum seekers have died in the Mediterranean. Desperate to escape untenable situations in  countries like, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia, refugees risk both life and livelihood to board rickety boats bound for what they hope will be a new life in Europe. Many of them die within sight of what they hoped would be the promised land.

 

Welcoming the Stranger is a devotional series designed to help Christians connect this unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean with the Bible’s call to “welcome the stranger.” Recognizing that “the stranger” can sometimes be an abstraction that blinds us to the face of Christ, the series approaches the refugee crisis from a personal perspective. Each entry focuses on one person’s story, brought vividly to life by Italian artist and relief worker, Francesco Piobbichi. These stories are then linked to relevant Scripture, prayer, discussion, and action prompts.

 

Immigration is a hot topic around the globe, and the Bible passages in this series speak to wherever we are called to “welcome the stranger.” My specific interest in the Mediterranean context was sparked by a 2016 trip to the island of Lampedusa—a small island off the coast of Sicily that is the scene of so much hope and tragedy for refugees trying to enter Europe via small, unsafe boats. In addition learning about the situation there and the work being done by ecumenical groups like Mediterranean Hope, I spent significant time interviewing Francesco Piobbichi, whose art documents the stories of individual refugees and families who often die trying to reach safety. You can learn more about him and work through the following link: Francesco Piobbichi’s Artwork Each of his “snapshots” tells a story—sometimes of triumph, but often of tragedy:  Piobbichi’s goal is to help people understand this large-scale human tragedy on a more personal level. My goal in this series is to use Piobbichi’s art as a starting point for Bible study and personal reflection/action.

Welcoming the Stranger: Freedom

 

Story:

At first glance we see only the boy with the ball. He could be the kid down the block. We smile at his exuberance. We marvel at his skill. We worry for his safety, since he seems more intent on scoring a goal than on landing well.

But then we look more closely. The “net” is made of barbed wire. And why is he suspended over the waves? Look more closely still. The waves, the sky, and even the sunset are filled with barbed wire. What kind of a game is this?

It is not a game at all. This is a heroic attempt to break free from oppression, poverty, and war. This is a beautiful child who is willing to risk everything for a new life. The barbed wire is the border that binds his future and scars his soul.

Maybe that’s why Francesco Piobbichi calls this drawing, “Kick the Fear.” Here is what he says about his drawings in general:

 

My drawings are conceived and end in a matter of minutes [using] vivid colors that give hope mixed with the pain they recount. The colors, scrawled onto the page, swirl as in the vortex of a storm; they almost tear the paper on which they are drawn. My drawings reveal the hatred that surrounds the migrants and the barbed wire that sticks in their skin, barriers so oppressive that the migrants will always live with it wherever they go. My drawings are an act of love for humanity—I would consider them emblems of justice and freedom (Drawings from the Border, p. vi).

 

Bible Reading: Isaiah 61:1 (NRSV)

The “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah’s prophecy announces good news to the people imprisoned in Babylon:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;  he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted,  to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.

The messenger may have been new, but the message was not. This was the theme-song of the exodus, after all. And if we trace the trajectory into the New Testament, we can hear the Suffering Servant singing the same song there. Our God is a god who liberates captives and binds up the broken-hearted. Second verse, same as the first.

Once we learn the melody of God’s theme-song we begin to recognize it in all sorts of places. One of the places I hear it is in these stories from the border. It makes me want to join God in that liberating song.

Discussion/Reflection:

  • Where do you hear God’s liberating song? How might you join in?
  • Had you noticed the barbed wire in Piobbichi’s drawings? What does that image evoke for you? How might we be contributing to it?

 

Action:

Prayer: We, created in your image, would a true reflection be of your justice, grace, and mercy and the truth that makes us free.

 

Welcoming the Stranger Series

In the last ten years more than 35,000 asylum seekers have died in the Mediterranean. Desperate to escape untenable situations in  countries like, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia, refugees risk both life and livelihood to board rickety boats bound for what they hope will be a new life in Europe. Many of them die within sight of what they hoped would be the promised land.

 

Welcoming the Stranger is a devotional series designed to help Christians connect this unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean with the Bible’s call to “welcome the stranger.” Recognizing that “the stranger” can sometimes be an abstraction that blinds us to the face of Christ, the series approaches the refugee crisis from a personal perspective. Each entry focuses on one person’s story, brought vividly to life by Italian artist and relief worker, Francesco Piobbichi. These stories are then linked to relevant Scripture, prayer, discussion, and action prompts.

 

Immigration is a hot topic around the globe, and the Bible passages in this series speak to wherever we are called to “welcome the stranger.” My specific interest in the Mediterranean context was sparked by a 2016 trip to the island of Lampedusa—a small island off the coast of Sicily that is the scene of so much hope and tragedy for refugees trying to enter Europe via small, unsafe boats. In addition learning about the situation there and the work being done by ecumenical groups like Mediterranean Hope, I spent significant time interviewing Francesco Piobbichi, whose art documents the stories of individual refugees and families who often die trying to reach safety. You can learn more about him and work through the following link: Francesco Piobbichi’s Artwork Each of his “snapshots” tells a story—sometimes of triumph, but often of tragedy:  Piobbichi’s goal is to help people understand this large-scale human tragedy on a more personal level. My goal in this series is to use Piobbichi’s art as a starting point for Bible study and personal reflection/action.

Welcoming the Stranger: Welela

 

Story:

When I visited the island of Lampedusa in 2018, artist Francesco Piobbichi took me to a sun-drenched cemetery where we visited the grave of the young woman at the center of this picture. Her name was Welela. Here is her story in Francesco’s own words:

Welela was in prison in Libya when a gas cylinder exploded and burned her body.

She was not treated but loaded onto a dinghy. I think of her burned skin with the salt

of the sea and the pain that she could have felt and none would [ever] tell. I think of

her friends singing to say goodbye to her. Welela stared at Europe and at our European

rulers from a dinghy of fire over this sea of barbed wire. Welela will give us her eternal

accusing eyes.

From Drawings from the Border (Claudiana, p. 22)

Bible Reading: Galatians 6:9 (NRSV)

Paul encouraged the Galatian Christians to “not grow weary in doing what is right.” For the people who work on the front lines of the refugee crisis, this is easier said than done.

I wanted to let you hear Welela’s story in Francesco’s own words because, in the telling, his pain is so intertwined with her own. Just as the salt-water must have seared Welela’s wounds, so memories of tragedy sear the souls of the rescue workers. How can one not grow weary? How can one not be angry?

For Francesco, the drawings are a way to “harness that anger” without forgetting what made him angry in the first place. As he puts it, “Drawing means getting inside yourself to narrate what is happening inside you: A picture…becomes a key to open the door of a tale that crosses borders” (Drawings from the Border, p. vi). Perhaps it is also a key to not growing weary in doing what is right.

Discussion/Reflection:

  • What part of Welela’s story is hardest for you to hear? Why?
  • Sometimes the secondary traumatization experienced by those who work with victims of tragedy is called “compassion fatigue.” Have you ever experienced this or known someone who has? What was it like?

Action:

  • The young man cradling a refugee baby in the photo below is a young Italian Protestant, Daniele Naso. This photograph was taken on his fifth volunteer assignment on a ship doing search and rescue operations on the Mediterranean. Pray for people like Daniele as well as for those they seek to help.

 

  • Risk your own comfort to help someone else today.

Prayer: Help those who help, O Lord. May they draw from the inexhaustible well of your compassion, so that they may not grow weary of well-doing.

 

 

Welcoming the Stranger Series

In the last ten years more than 35,000 asylum seekers have died in the Mediterranean. Desperate to escape untenable situations in  countries like, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia, refugees risk both life and livelihood to board rickety boats bound for what they hope will be a new life in Europe. Many of them die within sight of what they hoped would be the promised land.

 

Welcoming the Stranger is a devotional series designed to help Christians connect this unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean with the Bible’s call to “welcome the stranger.” Recognizing that “the stranger” can sometimes be an abstraction that blinds us to the face of Christ, the series approaches the refugee crisis from a personal perspective. Each entry focuses on one person’s story, brought vividly to life by Italian artist and relief worker, Francesco Piobbichi. These stories are then linked to relevant Scripture, prayer, discussion, and action prompts.

 

Immigration is a hot topic around the globe, and the Bible passages in this series speak to wherever we are called to “welcome the stranger.” My specific interest in the Mediterranean context was sparked by a 2016 trip to the island of Lampedusa—a small island off the coast of Sicily that is the scene of so much hope and tragedy for refugees trying to enter Europe via small, unsafe boats. In addition learning about the situation there and the work being done by ecumenical groups like Mediterranean Hope, I spent significant time interviewing Francesco Piobbichi, whose art documents the stories of individual refugees and families who often die trying to reach safety. You can learn more about him and work through the following link: Francesco Piobbichi’s Artwork Each of his “snapshots” tells a story—sometimes of triumph, but often of tragedy:  Piobbichi’s goal is to help people understand this large-scale human tragedy on a more personal level. My goal in this series is to use Piobbichi’s art as a starting point for Bible study and personal reflection/action.

Welcoming the Stranger: “Hi Mom. I’m Alive!”

 

Story:

Imagine not knowing whether your child is alive. Perhaps you haven’t heard from them for months. Or maybe all you know is that they boarded a crowded boat days or weeks before. Then your phone rings, and a beloved voice says, “Hi, Mom—I’m alive!”

This story strains imagination for most of us. Yet, it’s not uncommon for the families of refugees making the perilous trip across the Mediterranean. If the young refugees are lucky enough to make it, the first thing they want to do is “call home.” In his book, Drawings from the Border, Francesco Piobbichi writes, “In Lampedusa, I have heard children say to their mothers, ‘Ciao mamma—sono vivo!’ their white-toothed smiles lighting up Lampedusa’s main street.”

Of course, the poster in Piobbichi’s drawing reminds us of the kids who didn’t make it. How many parents are still waiting, I wonder, for a call that will never come?

 

 

Bible Reading: Genesis 1:27 (NRSV)

So God created humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.

This verse is so familiar we may have become numb to it. But its message is shocking. It tells us that human beings are created in the image of God. Think about that. If we had any sense, we would break out the brass band, light some fireworks, or even better—fall to our knees.

In view of this verse’s claims, it would also make sense to think hard about turning away from tragedies that leave human beings dying along our world’s borders.

Paola La Rosa puts her finger on the pulse of this tragedy when she writes, “…whether we support the political left or the political right, whether we are religiously unbelieving or believing, whether we consider ourselves to be moral people or immoral people, in ways we may not be aware of, we continue to deny [the refugees’] personhood” (Drawings from the Border, p. vi).

No one has to remind the mother waiting for that phone call that her son is a person. But maybe we need a reminder. Maybe we need to be reminded that each of those people whose bodies litter the beaches and borders of this world were, in fact, created in the image of God.

 

Discussion/Reflection:

  • How does the reminder that all are created in the image of God change or reinforce the way you think about refugees and migrants?
  • What were your thoughts and feelings as you read the story, “Hello, Mom—I’m Alive!”?

 

Action:

  • As you listen, watch, or read the news today, mentally insert the phrase “in the image of God” as people are named. Take note of how this affects your thoughts, words, and feelings.
  • Make eye contact with a stranger you encounter today, remembering that they are created in the image of God. See if it makes a difference in how you regard them. Afterwards, talk about this experience with a friend.

Prayer: We fall to our knees, gracious God, when we remember both the honor and the responsibility of begin created in your image.

 

Welcoming the Stranger Series

In the last ten years more than 35,000 asylum seekers have died in the Mediterranean. Desperate to escape untenable situations in  countries like, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia, refugees risk both life and livelihood to board rickety boats bound for what they hope will be a new life in Europe. Many of them die within sight of what they hoped would be the promised land.

 

Welcoming the Stranger is a devotional series designed to help Christians connect this unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean with the Bible’s call to “welcome the stranger.” Recognizing that “the stranger” can sometimes be an abstraction that blinds us to the face of Christ, the series approaches the refugee crisis from a personal perspective. Each entry focuses on one person’s story, brought vividly to life by Italian artist and relief worker, Francesco Piobbichi. These stories are then linked to relevant Scripture, prayer, discussion, and action prompts.

 

Immigration is a hot topic around the globe, and the Bible passages in this series speak to wherever we are called to “welcome the stranger.” My specific interest in the Mediterranean context was sparked by a 2016 trip to the island of Lampedusa—a small island off the coast of Sicily that is the scene of so much hope and tragedy for refugees trying to enter Europe via small, unsafe boats. In addition learning about the situation there and the work being done by ecumenical groups like Mediterranean Hope, I spent significant time interviewing Francesco Piobbichi, whose art documents the stories of individual refugees and families who often die trying to reach safety. You can learn more about him and work through the following link: Francesco Piobbichi’s Artwork Each of his “snapshots” tells a story—sometimes of triumph, but often of tragedy:  Piobbichi’s goal is to help people understand this large-scale human tragedy on a more personal level. My goal in this series is to use Piobbichi’s art as a starting point for Bible study and personal reflection/action.

Welcoming the Stranger: My Daughter! My Daughter!

 

Story:

From the moment this young mother was pulled from the waters of the Mediterranean, she was desperate to find her young daughter. “Mia bambina!” she cried, over and over. “My daughter! My daughter!”  She clung to the hope that her little girl would be found alive. It was as if hope itself were her lifeboat. Even after she had been transferred to a refugee center in Catania, Sicily, she continued to ask for her daughter. Eventually, the aid workers confirmed that the little girl had fallen into the water and drowned. In that moment, Francesco Piobbichi writes, it was as if “the sun became cold.” Silence fell over them and there were “no more words.”

 

Bible Reading: 2 Samuel 18:33 (NRSV)

When King David heard the news that his son, Absalom, was dead, he was “deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

In that moment, David was not responding as a king, but as a father. It didn’t seem to matter to him that Absalom had betrayed him, or that his own reaction was perceived as the height of ingratitude by his war-weary troops (see 19:1-8). Until the evidence was incontrovertible, he had continued to hope. The first words out of his mouth when the messenger came with the news were, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?”

When I look as Francesco Piobbichi’s drawing of the young mother hoping against hope that her daughter will be found alive, I do not see a refugee. I see a mother. And for me, the sun becomes cold, and there are no more words.

Discussion/Reflection:

  • Have you ever clung to hope in the face of all the evidence? What was it like? How does that experience help you to empathize with the mother in this story? With David?
  • How does the contemporary story help you to appreciate the aid workers who seek to assist refugees?

Action:

  • Read about a recent rescue on the island of Lampedusa, and Italian government’s attempts to block rescue efforts: May 5, 2019 Rescue
  • Reach out to someone who has recently suffered a profound loss.

Prayer: We know that you are a God who sees our misery and hears our cries. Hear the cries of all whose hearts are broken. Soften the hearts of those who have it within their power to alleviate suffering. Amen

 

 

Welcoming the Stranger Series

In the last ten years more than 35,000 asylum seekers have died in the Mediterranean. Desperate to escape untenable situations in  countries like, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia, refugees risk both life and livelihood to board rickety boats bound for what they hope will be a new life in Europe. Many of them die within sight of what they hoped would be the promised land.

 

Welcoming the Stranger is a devotional series designed to help Christians connect this unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean with the Bible’s call to “welcome the stranger.” Recognizing that “the stranger” can sometimes be an abstraction that blinds us to the face of Christ, the series approaches the refugee crisis from a personal perspective. Each entry focuses on one person’s story, brought vividly to life by Italian artist and relief worker, Francesco Piobbichi. These stories are then linked to relevant Scripture, prayer, discussion, and action prompts.

 

Immigration is a hot topic around the globe, and the Bible passages in this series speak to wherever we are called to “welcome the stranger.” My specific interest in the Mediterranean context was sparked by a 2016 trip to the island of Lampedusa—a small island off the coast of Sicily that is the scene of so much hope and tragedy for refugees trying to enter Europe via small, unsafe boats. In addition learning about the situation there and the work being done by ecumenical groups like Mediterranean Hope, I spent significant time interviewing Francesco Piobbichi, whose art documents the stories of individual refugees and families who often die trying to reach safety. You can learn more about him and work through the following link: Francesco Piobbichi’s Artwork Each of his “snapshots” tells a story—sometimes of triumph, but often of tragedy:  Piobbichi’s goal is to help people understand this large-scale human tragedy on a more personal level. My goal in this series is to use Piobbichi’s art as a starting point for Bible study and personal reflection/action.

Welcoming the Stranger: You Were A Stranger

 

Story:

Happy endings are hard to come by on the island of Lamepedusa. For one thing, even the migrants who survive the journey to this tiny island gateway to Europe have a long way to go before they reach anything that could be described as a “happy ending.” Nevertheless, there are glimmers of hope. The kiss of this young couple radiates both relief and hope. “We made it!” it exclaims. Hope—like the island of Lampedusa itself—persists in a sea of suffering.

Bible Reading: Exodus 23:9

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. God is counting on both empathy and memory to reinforce this command in Exodus 23:9: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (JPS).

God’s appeal must have had a powerful impact on the newly liberated covenant people. One wonders if it could have a similar impact on many of us.

Consider, for instance, this statistic: In the years between 1892 and 1954, approximately 12 million immigrants passed through the immigrant inspection station on Ellis Island. Were your ancestors among them? Mine were. I can’t help but wonder if my great-great-great grandparents shared a kiss of hope like the one in the picture.

Discussion/Reflection:

  • Were your ancestors immigrants? If so, how does that affect the way you view contemporary migrants?
  • What does it feel like to be a stranger in a strange land? To what degree can empathy and memory help us engage the contemporary conversation around migrants and refugees?

Action:

  • Research your own family’s story.
  • Read more about the island of Lampedusa in this March 26, 2019 editorial: A Look from the Border.

Prayer: Forgive us for our short memories. Forgive us for our lack of empathy. Forgive us when we are quick to accept God’s grace for ourselves, but slow to show grace to others.

 

Welcoming the Stranger Series

In the last ten years more than 35,000 asylum seekers have died in the Mediterranean. Desperate to escape untenable situations in  countries like, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia, refugees risk both life and livelihood to board rickety boats bound for what they hope will be a new life in Europe. Many of them die within sight of what they hoped would be the promised land.

 

Welcoming the Stranger is a devotional series designed to help Christians connect this unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean with the Bible’s call to “welcome the stranger.” Recognizing that “the stranger” can sometimes be an abstraction that blinds us to the face of Christ, the series approaches the refugee crisis from a personal perspective. Each entry focuses on one person’s story, brought vividly to life by Italian artist and relief worker, Francesco Piobbichi. These stories are then linked to relevant Scripture, prayer, discussion, and action prompts.

 

Immigration is a hot topic around the globe, and the Bible passages in this series speak to wherever we are called to “welcome the stranger.” My specific interest in the Mediterranean context was sparked by a 2016 trip to the island of Lampedusa—a small island off the coast of Sicily that is the scene of so much hope and tragedy for refugees trying to enter Europe via small, unsafe boats. In addition learning about the situation there and the work being done by ecumenical groups like Mediterranean Hope, I spent significant time interviewing Francesco Piobbichi, whose art documents the stories of individual refugees and families who often die trying to reach safety. You can learn more about him and work through the following link: Francesco Piobbichi’s Artwork Each of his “snapshots” tells a story—sometimes of triumph, but often of tragedy:  Piobbichi’s goal is to help people understand this large-scale human tragedy on a more personal level. My goal in this series is to use Piobbichi’s art as a starting point for Bible study and personal reflection/action.