Advent Calendar 2022 – Week 1

Week One:

Nov. 27

Introduction

I hope you are excited to start your Advent calendar! Each day we will read a few verses from the Bible as we count down the days until Christmas Day.

We’re going to start with the story of Moses in the book of Exodus. Some parts of this story are a little scary, but it reminds us that God knows when we are afraid and will come to help us. This is also an important part of the story of Jesus, which we’ll read later.

As the prophet Isaiah said:

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine… because you are precious in my sight and honored and I love you” (Isaiah 43:1b & 4a (NRSVue).

Ponder: Had you ever thought about the fact that God knows your name? How does that make you feel?

 

Nov. 28

Joseph and his Descendants in Egypt

Read: Exodus 1:1-7 (NRSVue)

These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. The total number of people born to Jacob was seventy. (Joseph was already in Egypt.) Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and that whole generation. But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.

Ponder: How many people are in your family? Can you name all your cousins? Remember that God loves families of all shapes and sizes.

 

Nov. 29

The Israelites are Oppressed (Part 1)

Read: Exodus 1:8-14 (NRSVue)

Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians subjected the Israelites to hard servitude 14 and made their lives bitter with hard servitude in mortar and bricks and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

Ponder: Why do you think the Pharaoh was so mean to the Joseph’s family? What does it feel like when someone is mean to you?

 

Nov. 30

The Israelites are Oppressed (Part 2)

Read: Exodus 1:15-22 (NRSVue)

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives, and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.”

Ponder: The Hebrew midwives were very brave. Why do you think they disobeyed Pharaoh’s order?

 

Dec. 1

Birth and Youth of Moses (Part 1)

Read: Exodus 2:1-4 (NRSVue)

1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son, and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.

Ponder: How do you think the mother and sister felt as they watched to see what would happen to the baby in the basket?

 

Dec. 2

Birth and Youth of Moses (Part 2)

Read: Exodus 2:5-10 (NRSVue)

The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

Ponder: What do you think Moses’ sister, Miriam, thought and felt when she saw Pharaoh’s daughter open the basket?

 

Dec. 3

Moses Flees to Midian (Part 1)

Read: Exodus 2:11-15

11 One day after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. 12 He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. 13 When he went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting, and he said to the one who was in the wrong, “Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?” 14 He answered, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” 15 When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses.

Ponder: Have you ever gotten into trouble for trying to help someone? How did that make you feel?

Getting Ready to Wait

Read: Luke 2:25-35

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah (Luke 2:25-26, NRSV).

It was the L’Occitane ad that put me over the edge. For only $80, the ad extolled, I could order their “Classic Advent Calendar” and “unbox 24 days of delights”—i.e.—their most popular skin-care products. And for $140 I could get the premium version, which would allow me to “indulge in our most luxurious gifts, from nourishing shea to powerful anti-aging” products.

I could use their anti-aging serum as much as the next person, but I’m not buying their attempt to coopt Advent for commercial gain. Neither am I content to capitulate to our culture’s impatience, treating the whole month of December (and even November) as one big Christmas extravaganza.

Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to the story of Simeon. He’d been waiting his whole life—and his people had been waiting for centuries. Yet, when he saw the Christ child, he knew that the wait had been worth it. Taking the baby into his arms, he poured out all his pent-up praise, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word: for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).

It’s also why I’ve decided to use this space to share an Advent Calendar. Consider it as my small act of protest. It’s a bit different from my usual offerings, but I’m hoping it will help people of all ages join in a countdown to a less commercial Christmas.

The series will start next week, so if you want to buy a special calendar, feel free. (Although it’s not necessary, and I would certainly steer clear of the “premium” versions!) It will feature two stories—one from the Old Testament and one from the New. We’ll begin with the story of Moses in Exodus 1-3 and then move on to Luke’s version of the Christmas story in Luke 2. I’ve decided to try out the new updated edition of the NRSV (NRSVue), hoping that it will make the stories more accessible for all ages. As difficult as it is for me, I have refrained from commenting on the stories themselves, although I do include one or two questions for people of all ages to “ponder.”

Since Advent begins on Sunday, November 27, look for the first week’s readings to show up in your inbox (or on Facebook) on Saturday, November 26. Until then, let’s get ready to wait!

Ponder: Did you grow up with Advent? How does it help us to wait? How does the secular, commercialized version of it undercut that?

Pray: Teach us to wait, faithful God, and to trust in your love for us.

Love On the Menu

Read: Proverbs 15:17

Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it (Proverbs 15:17, NRSV).

How does the old song go? Over the river and through the woods—to Grandmother’s house we go….

It was November of 2000, and my husband and I were making our annual pilgrimage to the family farm for Thanksgiving. I don’t remember going over the river or through the woods. I don’t even remember the traffic around Chicago. What I do remember is being glued to NPR, waiting for news of who had won the presidential election.

But wait, you may be saying. Why were you still waiting for the results of the presidential election at Thanksgiving? We were waiting because the election was so close, everything hinged on a recount in Florida to determine who would win the electoral college. That recount was mandated by state law since George W. Bush was only 537 votes ahead of Al Gore (who had, for the record, won the national popular vote). The election wasn’t decided until December 12, when the Supreme Court, in a 5 to 4 decision, stopped the recount and effectively declared George W. Bush the winner.

All of this is to say: You think it’s tense THIS year?

Realistically, though, there is a sense in which it is more tense this year. Our nation is even more polarized politically and culturally than it was two decades ago. And as we anticipate our annual holiday gatherings, tension will be on the menu for most of us.

Which brings me to this pithy little verse from Proverbs.

Proverbs become proverbs because generations of people recognize the truth in them. Having said that, it’s easy to see why Proverbs 15:17 made the grade. Many of us have learned the truth of this one the hard way.

But what wisdom does this proverb offer to those of us who are preparing to head over the river and through the woods to family gatherings fraught with tension?

Maybe this proverb is telling you to avoid the gathering altogether. Better a green bean casserole at home than turkey with all the fixings in a war zone.

Or maybe it’s nudging you to make sure love is on the menu. This is easier said than done, obviously. You could start by praying for your “frenemies.” It worked for Job and Jesus, after all. Of course, the relatives on the opposite end of the political spectrum may well be praying for you, too, but God will sort that out. I’ve always suspected such prayers benefit the “pray-er” more than the “pray-ee,” anyway, so it’s worth a try.

May God grant you courage, wisdom, patience, and grace as you anticipate family gatherings this year. And may love be the main thing on the menu.

Ponder: In Britain people often refer to political opponents as the “loyal opposition.” In the U.S.A. we’ve taken to thinking of them as “the enemy.” What are the causes of this? The consequences?

Pray: Grant us courage, wisdom, patience, and grace, O God. And then grant the same to those with whom we disagree.

Hard to Swallow

Read: Ezekiel 2:8-3:3

I looked, and a hand was stretched out to me, and a written scroll was in it. He spread it before me; it had writing on the front and on the back, and written on it were words of lamentation and mourning and woe. He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat (Ezekiel 2:9-3:2, NRSV).

I was casting about for something comforting to write about this week, but I kept coming back to this strange story from the book of Ezekiel. It’s not exactly comforting, but it may be the word we need to hear right now.

If the prophet Ezekiel were alive today, he’d probably be diagnosed with an eating disorder. (Pica to be precise—that’s a condition that causes people to eat things other than food.) And what God orders Ezekiel to swallow is definitely not food. It’s a scroll—a dry, double-sided scroll. That in itself would be hard to swallow, but this particular scroll is even less appealing because it is filled with “words of lamentation and mourning and woe.”

Ezekiel was a priest who had been hauled off to Babylon during what’s called the First Deportation in 597 B.C.E. I suppose he should have been flattered since the Babylonians only bothered with the cream of the crop in that first round-up. But flattery was probably far from Ezekiel’s thoughts as sat beside the rivers of Babylon, waiting to see what would become of the Temple, the people, and the land he left behind. As it turned out, he had about ten years to wait before he would find out the rest of the story.

Not every story has a happy ending, as Ezekiel would discover. The Babylonians eventually burned the Temple, sacked the city of Jerusalem, and hauled a good part of Judah’s population back to Babylon. (That’s what’s cleverly called the Second Deportation.) But at the time of the “scroll incident,” Ezekiel had no idea how the story would turn out. He only knew that God wanted him to open wide.

Whatever this story is about, it seems to have something to do with the inevitability of God’s judgment. Once the prophet swallows the scroll, after all, the only way out is “through.” (Now there’s an unappealing image!) Still, the story makes a point of saying that once Ezekiel actually eats the scroll, its taste is “sweet as honey.” Maybe that detail is a nod to the sweetness of obedience—even when what we’re being asked to do is completely unpalatable.

I don’t know if God’s mind is made up yet as to the fate of our nation—or our world, for that matter. I hope not. I hope there are still things that we can do to contribute to a happy ending. But I also hope that those of us who call ourselves Christians will discover the sweetness of obedience—even when what we’re being asked to do is completely unpalatable.

What might that look like? It might mean speaking a hard word when it would be easier to speak a soft word—or a soft word when it would be easier to speak a hard one! Who knows. The trick is to be ready to be obedient, even if what God asks us to do is hard to swallow.

Ponder: What might unpalatable obedience look like for you?

Pray: Help us to know how to be obedient in these confusing times.

Wedding Gifts

Read: John 2:1-11

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:1-5, NRSV).

It’s customary to shower newlyweds with gifts. This story does not disappoint, because it comes bearing several.

The couple in the Cana story brings us the gift of their anonymity. Think about how remarkable that is. This is probably the most famous wedding in history, and yet we never meet the bride and groom. But their anonymity allows us to focus on what the story has to say about love and God and life in general. The fact that they don’t even merit a footnote in their own wedding writeup may say more about the reporter than the bride and groom, but I take my hat off to them anyway.

Jesus brings the gift of his presence. How cool is it that we have this story about Jesus at a wedding? And from the sounds of it, it was quite a party. But we shouldn’t let that “water into wine” thing upstage the wonder of the fact that he graced that event with his presence. And I think the fact that he did reminds us to invite him—not just to weddings—but to marriages as well.

Mary evidently couldn’t decide what to bring because she comes bearing several gifts. First, she brings compassion for the host. She sees that the wine has run out, and she springs into action with her second gift: faith. She knows Jesus can do something about this potentially embarrassing problem, so she goes to him and says, “They’ve run out of wine!” When he hesitates, she pulls out her third gift: chutzpah. She doesn’t argue, she just turns to the waitstaff and says, “Do whatever he tells you.”  She’s basically daring Jesus to contradict her! That takes chutzpah, even if you are Jesus’ mother. It makes me wonder if she has some extra leverage on him—like the fact that he’s shown up at the event with all of his disciples. Is this why the wine ran out? Just asking.

The servants come bearing a gift for us as well—namely—they bear witness to God’s extravagant love. There were six jars holding twenty or thirty gallons each. That’s a lot of water—and a lot of wine! Jesus probably could have averted the crisis just by changing just one jar to wine—but no. He goes for all six, and the servants suddenly have 180 gallons of wine to work with. That is a wonderful gift and an even more wonderful reminder: Love extravagantly.

Finally, the steward gifts us with his statement about saving the best until last. I think all of us who have known pain and disappointment know just how sweet the surprise of a second chance is. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to think that God may be saving the best until last for us as well?

Ponder: What is your favorite gift in this story and why?

Pray: Help us to love as generously as you have loved us, gracious God.

Cake Week

Read: Jeremiah 7:16-20

Do you not see what they are doing in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven; and they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger. Is it I whom they provoke? Says the LORD. Is it not themselves, to their own hurt?  (Jeremiah 7:17-19, NRSV).

It’s a sure sign that I’ve been watching too many episodes of the Great British Baking Show. The first thing I thought of when I read Jeremiah’s words about the women of Jerusalem kneading dough “to make cakes for the queen of heaven” was: I wonder if I could find a recipe for those?

While I couldn’t find a precise recipe, I did discover that these cakes were a thin, unleavened loaf of fine flour, often fashioned or stamped with the image of Ishtar/Astarte/Ashtoreth. So, if this were cake week on the Great British Baking Show, “Cakes for the queen of heaven” would probably be a great choice for the technical challenge. Contestants would have to made do with only the most basic instructions: Produce 12 identical cakes stamped with the image of an ancient fertility goddess….

Please, please do not send this idea to Paul and Prue.

Right about now you are probably thinking, “Well, this is one Bible passage I don’t have to worry about. I’m so rarely tempted to bake cakes for the queen of heaven.”

That is where you would be wrong. All of us whip up these confectionery showstoppers on a regular basis whether we are conscious of it or not. It comes from being part of a culture that worships power, wealth, and pleasure. And like the people of Jeremiah’s day, we make our idolatry a family affair, passing our perverted values on to the next generation.

If you think I am exaggerating, consider the appeal of the ancient pantheon of which the queen of heaven was a part. What could be better? This was a faith that offered people the power to manipulate nature and thereby amass wealth. And did I mention that one could accomplish all of this while enjoying sexual pleasure? Honestly, marketing this one would be—well—a cakewalk.

Almost fifty years ago, sociologist Peter Berger wrote an article in the Christian Century called “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven: 2.500 Years of Religious Ecstasy.” He points out that religions centered on pleasure and power are also recognizable by their violations of social justice. Do any of these symptoms sound familiar?

  • Failure to abide by the law
  • Oppression of the weaker elements of society
  • Shedding of innocent blood

I suspect the prophet Jeremiah would have some harsh words for our society. And the sharpest words of all would be directed at those who claim to hold one set of values while simultaneously embracing another set altogether.

So, how about it? Baked any cakes for the queen of heaven lately?

Ponder: What does your daily routine say about your values? Is pleasure always bad? Power?

Pray: Help us to value the right things—and to do so consistently.

Supper’s Ready

Read: Isaiah 25:6-10a

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever (Isaiah 25:6-8a, NRSV).

“Form forms,” the architects tell us.

I have felt the force of this observation in recent years. At the seminary where I teach, we gather each Friday around a familiar table. It sits, not at the front of our chapel, but at the center. We gather around it like the big, rowdy family that we are. We don’t agree on everything, but we agree on one thing, namely, that we are sinners, hungry for grace. As the popular invitation puts it:

Beloved of God—come to Christ’s table.

Come, not because you ought—but because you may.

Come, not because you are righteous—but because you are penitent.

Come, not because you are strong—but because you are weak.

Come, not because you are whole—but because you are broken

The table is at the center of Isaiah’s vision as well. The first thing to catch our eye is the food and wine. But if we look around, we realize that the family is similarly broken. This chapter sees beyond the pain of the present, though, transforming our ability to see possibilities invisible to the naked eye. Isaiah’s corrective lenses allow us to glimpse a day when “the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces” (v. 8).

This comfort is far from casual. It is based on an incredible claim. With the flair of a magician, God sweeps away “the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread of all nations” (v. 7). To make sure no one ever uses that shroud again, God destroys it. Death’s appetite may seem insatiable, but in Isaiah’s vision, death itself is swallowed up. God eats it, so that we don’t have to.

The table really is at the center. We don’t have to understand it to sense it, and we are drawn to it like children who hear their mother calling, “Supper’s ready!”

So, come, Beloved of God. Come not because you ought—but because you may. Come, not because you are righteous—but because you are penitent. Come, not because you are strong—but because you are weak. Come, not because you are whole—but because you are broken.

Supper’s ready.

Ponder these stanzas of the old hymn by Joseph Hart (1712):

Come, ye sinners, poor and needy
Weak and wounded, sick and sore
Jesus ready, stands to save you
Full of pity, love and power

Come, ye thirsty, come and welcome
God’s free bounty glorify
True belief and true repentance
Every grace that brings you nigh

Let not conscience make you linger

Nor of fitness fondly dream

All the fitness he requireth

Is to feel your need of him.

Come, ye weary, heavy-laden
Lost and ruined by the fall
If you tarry ’til you’re better
You will never come at all

I will arise and go to Jesus
He will embrace me in His arms
In the arms of my dear Savior
Oh, there are ten thousand charms

Pray: Make us hungry for your grace, O God.

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry

                          Photo by Rev. David Mayer

Read: Ecclesiastes 3:12-14

I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil” (Ecclesiastes 3:12-14, NRSV).

“Don’t you just love fall?” I asked exuberantly.

“No,” my companion replied. “It reminds me that everything is dying. Winter is coming.”

We live in Michigan, so I’m the first to admit that winter is a sobering prospect. I refuse to let tomorrow’s winter spoil today’s fall, however. In a weird sort of way, I savor these crisp, colorful days even more because I know that they are numbered.

Epicurus is usually given credit for the popular proverb, “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.” The author of Ecclesiastes (the Teacher) says something quite similar in the passage quoted above, yet one gets the sense that he is less of a hedonist than he is a pragmatist. Life is short, he admits. So, make the most of it! But then he adds a dash of theology to his philosophy: “…it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil.” According to the Teacher, God is less of a cosmic killjoy than the life of the party. Who knew? God wants us to eat, drink, and be merry!

The Teacher’s words in chapter three are less of a surprise when we know how to interpret his favorite refrain, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” Translators often interpret this as “all is meaningless,” but nothing could be further from the Teacher’s intentions. The Hebrew word behind “vanity” is hevel, which is better rendered as “ephemeral.” Life is short, in other words. Make the most of it! Winter is coming, so let’s savor the beauty of fall. As Shakespeare put it in Sonnet 73: “This thou perceiv’st which makes thy love more strong, to love that well which thou must leave ere long.”

I was watching a PBS special about the River Danube the other day. It featured a segment highlighting the extremely short life of a particular kind of mayfly. The larva hides in the mud for up to three years, but then it rises from the water for a “short but well-lived” lifespan of only three hours. The documentary didn’t show the mayfly doing much eating and drinking, but there was a whole lot of making merry.

In the spirit of the mayfly, crisp fall days, and the timeless wisdom of the Teacher, let me conclude with this on-point poem by Rose Milligan. It’s called “Dust If You Must.”

Read: Ecclesiastes 3:12-14

I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil” (Ecclesiastes 3:12-14, NRSV).

“Don’t you just love fall?” I asked exuberantly.

“No,” my companion replied. “It reminds me that everything is dying. Winter is coming.”

We live in Michigan, so I’m the first to admit that winter is a sobering prospect. I refuse to let tomorrow’s winter spoil today’s fall, however. In a weird sort of way, I savor these crisp, colorful days even more because I know that they are numbered.

Epicurus is usually given credit for the popular proverb, “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.” The author of Ecclesiastes (the Teacher) says something quite similar in the passage quoted above, yet one gets the sense that he is less of a hedonist than he is a pragmatist. Life is short, he admits. So, make the most of it! But then he adds a dash of theology to his philosophy: “…it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil.” According to the Teacher, God is less of a cosmic killjoy than the life of the party. Who knew? God wants us to eat, drink, and be merry!

The Teacher’s words in chapter three are less of a surprise when we know how to interpret his favorite refrain, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” Translators often interpret this as “all is meaningless,” but nothing could be further from the Teacher’s intentions. The Hebrew word behind “vanity” is hevel, which is better rendered as “ephemeral.” Life is short, in other words. Make the most of it! Winter is coming, so let’s savor the beauty of fall. As Shakespeare put it in Sonnet 73: “This thou perceiv’st which makes thy love more strong, to love that well which thou must leave ere long.”

I was watching a PBS special about the River Danube the other day. It featured a segment highlighting the extremely short life of a particular kind of mayfly. The larva hides in the mud for up to three years, but then it rises from the water for a “short but well-lived” lifespan of only three hours. The documentary didn’t show the mayfly doing much eating and drinking, but there was a whole lot of making merry.

In the spirit of the mayfly, crisp fall days, and the timeless wisdom of the Teacher, let me conclude with this on-point poem by Rose Milligan. It’s called “Dust If You Must.”

Dust if you must, but wouldn’t it be better

To paint a picture or write a letter,

Bake a cake, or plant a seed;

Ponder the difference between want and need?

Dust if you must, but there’s not much time,

With rivers to swim, and mountains to climb;

Music to hear, and books to read;

Friends to cherish, and life to lead.

Dust if you must, but the world’s out there

With the sun in your eyes, and the wind in your hair;

A flutter of snow, a shower of rain,

This day will not come around again.

Dust if you must, but bear in mind,

Old age will come and it’s not kind.

And when you go (and go you must)

You, yourself, will make more dust.

Ponder: Must you dust?

Pray: Help me to savor each moment of my wild and precious life, O God.

Ponder: Must you dust?

Pray: Help me to savor each moment of my wild and precious life, O God.

It’s Tempting

Read: Matthew 4:1-11

The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command theses stones to become loaves of bread.” But [Jesus] answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4: 3-4, NRSV).

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Sanctified Brethren lately. They were the fictional creation of humorist Garrison Keillor, but for those of us in the midst of fracturing denominations, they seem all too real.

In his 1985 novel, Lake Wobegon Days, Keillor described the Sanctified Brethren as “a sect so tiny that nobody but us and God knew about it.” They met three times a week in Uncle Al and Aunt Flo’s living room to sing and pray and wait for the Spirit to move. Scripture played an important role for them—so important that it was emblazoned on every available flat surface. Even the wastebasket warned: “Touch not the unclean thing—2 Cor. 6:17.”

Another part of that same verse served as the sect’s motto: “Be ye separate.” Indeed, they took this motto so seriously that, “once having tasted the pleasure of being Correct and defending True Doctrine, they kept right on and broke up at every opportunity.”

Does any of this feel familiar? Like the Sanctified Brethren, many Christian denominations are demonstrating a pernicious proclivity for getting smaller. But the fractures aren’t just at the denominational levels. Congregations and families are feeling their effects as well. “I can’t go to my home church anymore,” a woman told me. “Nobody there considers me a Christian.”

At the heart of many of these divisions is the interpretation of Scripture. We lob Bible verses at each other as if they were grenades and then act surprised when people get hurt. Or maybe we’re not surprised. Maybe we meant for that to happen.

Lord, have mercy.

There is something to be learned, I think, from the story of Jesus’ discussion with “the tempter” in Matthew 4. The old adage about how “even the devil quotes Scripture” is immediately obvious. When Jesus deflects the devil’s “stones into bread” temptation with a quote from Deuteronomy 8:3, the devil lobs back a passage from Psalm 91:11-12. Undeterred, Jesus counters with a quote from Deuteronomy 6:16. We can almost hear the devil cursing under his breath, especially when Jesus deflects the Satan’s last temptation with a well-placed quote from Deuteronomy 6:13.

It would be easy to swagger away from this passage, confident that it confirms our proclivity for weaponizing the Bible. But somewhere in our defense of True Doctrine, we would do well to look more closely at the temptations Jesus avoids in this story.

Turning stones into bread—even with the considerable incentive of having fasted for forty days and nights—is, among other things, a warning about the dangers of instant gratification. (It may feel good to quote that verse out of context, but maybe it would be better to do a little more research before we beat somebody up with it.) Refusing to put God to the test—even though Jesus knew that God could easily save him from being dashed to pieces—is a caution against to trying to manipulate God. (Before we indulge in the “pleasure of being Correct,” we might consider the possibility that we could be wrong.) Opting to worship the true God rather than a smooth-talking imposter is a stern reminder to examine our motives. (Are our arguments more about winning than they are about understanding?)

I am under no illusion that this little Bible study will turn the tide of our tendency to beat one another up with the Bible. I’m still less confident that it will put even a small dent in our proclivity to break up at every opportunity. But I for one am tired of this nonsense, and I don’t know what to do about it. It’s tempting to give up, but I think I’ll settle for saying, “Lord, have mercy.”

Ponder: Even the Bible can be bullied into bearing false witness.

Pray: Teach us to handle both your word and your people with respect, O God.

Food that LAUGHS

Read: 1 Kings 21:1-16

And Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance” (1 Kings 21:2-3, NRSV).

I suppose one could argue that King Ahab was the founder of the Farm to Table movement. After all, he really wanted a farm close to his table. There’s a lot more going on here than fresh vegetables, however, and some of it is powerfully relevant to today.

If you’re not familiar with the story, here is the condensed version. King Ahab makes what is, on the face of it, a reasonable offer for his neighbor Naboth’s vineyard. Naboth refuses to sell, not because he’s stubborn, but because he is operating with a very different value system. No amount of money is worth selling his ancestral inheritance. Ahab is unused to people saying “no” to him, so goes back to the palace to sulk. When Queen Jezebel asks him what’s wrong, he relates what has happened, but leaves out the real reason for Naboth’s refusal. Not that it would have mattered anyway. Jezebel is not one to let loyalty and integrity stand in her way. And indeed, she makes short work of Naboth on trumped up charges of blasphemy and treason. His body is barely cool before she scurries back to Ahab with the good news. Ahab can’t wait to start ripping out the vines and runs down to take possession of his prize.

Even if we knew nothing about Ahab’s reputation, the fact that he wants to rip out an established vineyard to plant a vegetable garden tells us a lot about him. Vineyards take six to twelve years to become established, and every year after that adds to their value. So, even without the “ancestral inheritance” factor, Ahab’s proposal is short-sighted at best. But as the story unfolds, we see both Ahab and Naboth for who they really are. There is a sense in which this is a story about dueling value systems. Naboth’s portfolio includes integrity, loyalty, and faithfulness; Ahab’s includes duplicity, selfishness, and arrogance. Oh, and did I mention petulance? Ahab wins the prize for petulance.

It might be possible to keep this story at arm’s length if we skimmed lightly over the “ancestral inheritance” theme. But when we realize that the earth is our own ancestral inheritance, it becomes alarmingly relevant. What, we may ask, are we willing to risk in order to preserve that inheritance? What value systems are threatening it—and us—with destruction?

Those are big questions that deserve deep reflection and courageous action. But as a small step in the right direction, I’d like to share something that I learned from my friend, Grace Hackney and the folks at Life Around the Table.

Grace suggests that when it comes to choosing the food that goes on our own table, we look for food that LAUGHS. That’s an acronym for Local, Affordable, Uncomplicated, Good, Healthy, and Seasonal. It won’t solve all the problems that plague our culture’s eating habits, but it could be a good place to start. At the very least, it may make us more aware of just how valuable our ancestral inheritance is. It may even make us more willing to fight for a value system that honors the path from farm to table.

Ponder: What steps would you need to take to find food that LAUGHS? What obstacles might you encounter? What rewards?

Pray: For the food that we are about to receive, O Lord, make us truly grateful.