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Posts in Erin Arendse
here are my mother and my brothers

Matthew 12: 48-50 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

As we've discussed all week, family can be messy. But family is how Jesus refers to his disciples (and to us!). This is a joyful thing! Just like biological families, church family is messy and painful. But Jesus says that we are HIS family, which means that we get to move through this messy, painful space with him. 

When you think about what it looks like to navigate family messiness, what changes when Jesus is suddenly there? How might remembering that Jesus is part of our family help us walk through messiness with that family?

"To thank his God for sorrow..."

Psalm 118: 1 "Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever."

I know we normally do contemplative poems for devotions on Friday, but we're gonna mix it up this week in honor of Thanksgiving. Here are the last two stanzas of a moderately lengthy Thanksgiving poem. To read the entire thing, go here.

Thanksgiving

by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Full many a blessing wears the guise
   Of worry or of trouble;
Far-seeing is the soul, and wise,
   Who knows the mask is double.
But he who has the faith and strength
   To thank his God for sorrow
Has found a joy without alloy
   To gladden every morrow.

We ought to make the moments notes
   Of happy, glad Thanksgiving;
The hours and days a silent phrase
   Of music we are living.
And so the theme should swell and grow
   As weeks and months pass o’er us,
And rise sublime at this good time,
   A grand Thanksgiving chorus.

Harsh Words in Hard Times

Job 2: 9-10 His wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”

It’s easy to be nice to each other when things are going swell. But, as Job and his wife demonstrate in today’s passage, the rough times make family unity a bit more difficult. Job and his wife had just lost everything (their children, their livestock, their health), so one might be willing to forgive some harsh words in this instance. But that doesn’t mean that this interaction is going to make their suffering any easier.

What is a situation in your family life right now that might be increasing the difficulty of those relationships? How might you prepare yourself to deal kindly with your partner, your children, your parents, your siblings in light of that difficulty?

‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.

Friday – Jeremiah 6: 14 “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”

Jeremiah was one of many prophets that God sent to Israel when they became arrogant and unconcerned. Ultimately, Israel failed to listen to these prophets, so God scattered them to the winds of exile for several hundred years.

What I want to spend some time thinking about this morning is all the ways in which these words from Jeremiah should strike us today. There is so much injustice in our world – from gun violence to hatred of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters to racism to abuse of the poor and it goes on and on.

Do we dress these wounds as if they were not serious? Do we call the abused to peace when there is no peace for them? Jesus calls us to fight off our unconcernedness. He asks us to give protection to our neighbors and the visitors in our public squares. This morning, think about some areas where you can give protection to those in the public square. Then make a game plan to follow up on that thought.

Speak up!

Thursday –  Proverbs 31: 8-9 “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

These words from King Lemuel’s mother point to a key element of protecting the visitor and the poor: silence leads to violence. We are called multiple times in this passage to “speak up” for others, in particular for those who cannot speak up for themselves.

This is a common theme throughout scripture, and those who fail to speak up, particularly those in comfortable and privileged positions, are called to account by God for their failure to use their privilege for the benefit of the disenfranchised.

What does it mean to you that God calls us to speak up and defend the rights of others?

"as your native-born"

Leviticus 19: 13-14 “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

As we learned on Sunday, it was common in the Ancient Near East for visitors to a town to sleep in the square. From there, local folks might come and invite these guests into their homes, but even if travelers weren’t invited into a home it was generally expected that they would be safe sleeping in the square for the night. In Genesis 19, one of the great failures of Sodom was their violent behavior toward such visitors.

In Leviticus, several hundred years after Genesis 19, God makes clear to the Israelites that he expects them to treat foreigners with dignity and hospitality - "as your native-born." Such hospitality is to be one of the markers of God's people. (It's particularly interesting that the reason God gives for this command is Israel's own time as foreigners in Egypt.)

Today, God's people do not form a nation state like Israel, so it might be worth considering what "foreigner" means for us. Who do you think Jesus intends that we should treat with this sort of respect and hospitality?

Forget-me-nots

Hosea 13:6 “When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me.”

If I were to take an inventory of my life, I would have to admit that I have regularly called on Jesus in moments of distress, only to forget about him more or less immediately after he sends the relief I sought. To varying degrees, we are all guilty of this, and God makes pretty clear in scripture that it frustrates him.

Jesus actually connects forgetting him with forgetting the poor. In Matthew 25, he explicitly states that the way we remember and honor him is by remembering and honoring the poor, sick, and imprisoned.

So when Israel, Sodom, America, whoever, grows satisfied, proud, and forgetful, Jesus does not take it likely. In fact, we could list dozens of examples of proud and unconcerned folks in scripture who are lifted up as examples of people who have missed the point entirely – they believe their prosperity is the result of their own doing and they forget God and the people he calls them to care for. What does it mean for you that Jesus takes the care of others so seriously?

Ezekiel's Say

Monday - Ezekiel 16:49-50 “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me.”

In today’s passage, Ezekiel is confronting Jerusalem with her sin. In later verses, he compares Jerusalem to Sodom and Samaria, claiming that Jerusalem’s sin is so grave that they make Sodom look good!

This might come as a surprise to many who grew up in the church, hearing a tradition that holds Sodom and Gomorrah up as the worst sinners of all time. But Ezekiel is saying, “Hey! Jerusalem made these guys look good.” In particular, Ezekiel points to Sodom’s failure of compassion as the primary source of their sin.

Rebuking Israel for their own failed compassion and justice is a common refrain for the Old Testament prophets. It’s one of the most common reasons that the prophets give for Israel’s exile. It seems that God is deeply concerned that his people should concern themselves with the plight of the poor and needy. Consider your own life this morning. Where are the areas in which you exhibit concern, and where are the areas where you are “arrogant and overfed”?

The comfort of the Bible

Psalm 94: 19 (New Living Translation) "When doubts filled my mind, your comfort gave me renewed hope and cheer."

For today's devotional, I wanted to share an excerpt from Peter Enns' book The Bible Tells Me So, which rubs a lot of elbows with the question of doubt. I offer it as an encouragement to keep wrestling with your doubts as we move on in our exploration of Genesis.

"An unsettled faith is a maturing faith. Christians often get the signal from others that if they doubt or struggle in some way with the Bible, their faith is weak. They are told that their goal should be to ease the stress somehow by praying more, going to church twice on Sunday (and Wednesday if need be), or generally just stop being so rebelliously stubborn and asking so many questions.

"But one thing we see in the Bible is how often people's trust in God was shaken - and not because they were weak, but because life happens. Whether we read books like Job and Ecclesiastes ... or the dozens of psalms that cry out to God for some reason or another, life does not move along smoothly.

"You get the feeling from the Bible that being unsettled is almost a normal part of the process. ... True struggling in faith is a stretching experience, and without it, you don't mature in your faith. You either remain an infant or get cocky. ... Feeling unsettled may be God telling us lovingly, but still in his typical attention-getting manner, it's time to grow."

The blessing of belief

Thursday – John 20: 24-25 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

Now Thomas (also known as Doubting Thomas) is rather infamous for this interaction at the end of John. Jesus has risen and appeared already to a handful of his disciples, but Thomas happened to be out of the room when Jesus showed up to everyone else and he is having a hard time accepting the possibility of literal resurrection.

Not long after this, Jesus appears to the disciples again and actually encourages Thomas to touch his hands, feet, and side so that he can know and believe. This is a gentle and vulnerable gesture on Jesus’s part. There is no chastisement. Just invitation.

Of course, Jesus also recognizes that most of his future disciples (us, for instance) will not have the opportunity to literally touch his hands, feet, and side. In his conversation with Thomas, Jesus offers a blessing for those who will believe without seeing. It’s not that Thomas’s desire for evidence is wrong, but it’s also not inherently better than belief without proof. Both are important parts of the disciple’s experience (which includes us!)

How does this tension between the goodness of doubt and the blessing of belief show up in your own life?

Brain vs. Nerves

Mark 9: 24 “Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’”

Sometimes doubt is less a question of logic and more a question of overcoming our sense of what is possible. In Mark 9, a father brought his son to Jesus for healing, and Jesus basically said, “This is possible if you just believe.” You can see the father’s response in today’s verse.

I see this applying to me in particular when it comes to believing in Jesus’ love for me. I know my own sin and failings, and I find it hard to believe that someone would love me so much that they would die for me and take the blame for those sins and failings. Believing such a thing and basing my life on it is like consenting to walk blindfolded on a tightrope while trusting that a force you can’t feel is going to keep you upright and moving in the right direction. I might be able to convince my brain, but it’s going to be hard to convince my heart and my nerves.

Where do you, like the father in Mark 9, feel your soul shouting, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

Freedom to laugh

Genesis 18: 15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.” But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”

I resonate with Sarah a lot in this passage. In particular, it makes sense to me both why she would laugh and why she would feel afraid for being called out on it. If I had to guess, I would say that she has internalized the things her culture says about doubting the gods (or God in her case), and she is worried that her private doubts will put her out of favor with the divine.

But we don't see that happen here. In fact, it’s kind of a weird passage. Once the visitor says, “Yes, you did laugh,” that’s the end of it. No judgmental speech. No condemnation. No retracting the promise of a son. Just “Yes, you did laugh.”

I’m going to go out on a limb here and read this as an interaction designed mostly just to make it okay for Sarah to admit publicly that she has doubts in private. What if that’s what’s going on here? What if God wants it to be possible for you to express your doubts and just leave them there? What doubts might you express in a space of freedom like that?

She laughed to herself

Genesis 18: 11-12 Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”

Sarah does something in this passage that we’ve all done at least once or twice – she doubts a promise that seems to come from God. Sometimes she gets a bad rap for this moment of doubt, but it’s also pretty hard to blame her for it. After all, any honest follower of Jesus has to admit to having doubts now and again. And these doubts really often just demonstrate that our brains and hearts are working properly.

The popular theologian Timothy Keller says, “A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen to her own doubts, which should be discarded only after long reflection.” So let’s spend some time in reflection today. What are your doubts? Write them down if you want. Speak them out loud (to yourself or to others). What are they? Listen to them today.

So what about eunuchs?

Acts 8: 34-38 “The eunuch* asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.”

It may not have escaped your notice that circumcision is a, shall we say… male-centric ritual. And really, it’s only centered on a particular kind of male body. If you don’t fit that framework, you just have to sit on the sidelines. When it comes to the actual act of circumcision, those of us on the sidelines probably don’t mind too much, but when it comes to participation in the covenant, then exclusion starts to matter.

As the Ethiopian eunuch demonstrates, baptism is a far more inclusive marker than circumcision ever was. He intuitively understands that baptism is available to him. I love his question, “What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” It’s a rhetorical question. He already knows the answer: nothing.

As we see the holy spirit push the early church more and more towards inclusion, we start to see the importance of the new covenant markers of baptism and communion. They include. They bring people in. They encourage fellowship. These are the things Jesus unveils in his new covenant, as he meets the culture where it is and challenges it to grow. What does that mean for you today?

*If you're asking yourself, "what's a eunuch?" See what google has to say.

Bound Together

Thursday – Luke 22: 17-19 After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

Throughout scripture, we see God bringing his people away from old symbols and towards new ones. One common symbol of covenant that the church has participated in since Jesus instituted it on the night before his crucifixion is communion. If you've been to City Church (or any church, really!) on a Sunday, you may have taken communion too. Usually, the person leading it quotes Jesus’ words from today’s passage (or one of the other gospels) to remind us of his sublime sacrifice – both magnificent and terrible.

Many Christian traditions teach that communion is a sort of replacement for circumcision. Much like circumcision was a physical and ritual marker of God’s covenant with the Israelites, so communion is a physical and ritual marker of his covenant with us. In this way, communion connects us with a heritage that stretches back thousands of years.

I encourage you today to spend some time reflecting on the magnitude of that idea – when you take communion on Sundays, you’re participating in something that your sisters and brothers in Christ were doing 400 years ago, 600 years ago, 1,600 years ago, 2,000 years ago! This is the power of symbols. They connect us and remind us that we are bound together by something much bigger than any one person.

Food Polluted by Idols

Acts 15: 19-21 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

So, what’s the deal with strangled animals and feet polluted by idols? Let’s look at food polluted by idols. The “pollution” here happened when the food was presented to idols in the home or at a temple. Eating the food afterward was often part of the worship practice, so the instruction to abstain from polluted food is essentially an instruction to refrain from idolatry. In other places, however, Paul lets Gentiles know that they may eat meat sacrificed to idols as long as it will not cause “weaker brothers” to stumble.

God’s tendency throughout scripture is to move his people slowly from one thing to the next. He pushes his people just slightly beyond the expectations of their culture – not so much that they can’t handle following him, but enough that they are set apart. In the cultural time and space of Acts, eating meat sacrificed to idols felt like idolatry for some. Hence, the Jewish leaders affirmed the need for Gentiles to set themselves apart as followers of Jesus.

Navigating the space between symbols and covenant can be so tricky. Think about the symbols you've processed this week. What is it about the unhelpful symbols that has made them unhelpful, and what is it about the helpful symbols that helps them stay helpful?

No Obstacles

Acts 15: 19-21 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

Admittedly, it can be easy to hang too tightly to the symbols of our faith. In Acts 15, for instance, the early church has a dispute about whether or not Gentiles should have to adopt one of the main Jewish symbols of covenant - circumcision. (It’s worth reading through the entire chapter just to get a sense of how the early church handled disagreements like this one.)

As you can see in today’s passage, the church leaders ultimately decided that the symbols really were nothing more than that - symbols, which were not intended to take the place of the covenant they were meant only to symbolize. So, rather than allow the the act and marker of circumcision to cause confusion and act as an obstacle for Gentiles, they took the requirement away.

Yesterday we brought to mind the markers of God’s faithfulness in our lives. Today, consider if any of those markers have taken the place of the covenant you have with God. Are they helpful markers and rituals, or are they distracting you from the actual covenant he has made with you?


P.S. Close readers might notice that there are a couple symbols (like not eating meat from strangled animals or that has been sacrificed to idols) that the early church leaders still required of the Gentiles. Don’t worry. I saw it too. We’ll look at them tomorrow.

Physical Reminders

Genesis 17: 9-10 Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised.”

In Genesis 17, Abraham’s covenant with God continues to develop. God changes Abram’s name to Abraham and sets for the terms of his covenant – every male in his family must be circumcised. Circumcision remains a symbol to this day of Israel’s commitment to God.

Throughout the course of the early Old Testament, God actually designates a number of physical markers for the Israelites. Circumcision is by far the most … intrusive, but each of the symbols God sets out for them reminds the Israelites, and those around them, that they are set apart for covenant with the God of Abraham. This morning, consider what physical reminders or rituals there are in your life that represent God’s faithfulness to you? If you feel like there are none, ask God to open your eyes to the ways he has been faithful to you.

Psalm of Ascent: Friday

I hope this week of meditation and reflection has been restful for you. Next week, we'll switch back to our normal devotional style, but the reading practices we've done this week are part of a long tradition in the church of reflective and meditative reading.

As we read our final Psalm of Ascent this morning (read it slowly, a couple times), I would encourage you to think about the ways in which this Psalm may or may not reflect how you feel today. Sometimes the promises we see in scripture can feel almost teasing - promises of peace and righteousness and justice. But scripture tells us again and again that, while that feeling is common throughout the history of our faith, the promises are still true and are / will be fulfilled. How might this psalm reflect that tension in your own life and soul today?

Psalm 125

A song of ascents.

1 Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,
    which cannot be shaken but endures forever.
2 As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
    so the Lord surrounds his people
    both now and forevermore.

3 The scepter of the wicked will not remain
    over the land allotted to the righteous,
for then the righteous might use
    their hands to do evil.

4 Lord, do good to those who are good,
    to those who are upright in heart.
5 But those who turn to crooked ways
    the Lord will banish with the evildoers.

Peace be on Israel.

Psalm of Ascent: Thursday

All week, we've been taking a meditative approach to reading scripture. For today's meditation, I want you to ask yourself, "What is the theme of Psalm 124?" Look for repeated words and ideas. What is this Psalm's central focus? Once you've arrived at a theme, ask yourself how that theme applies to your life today and to the church more broadly. It will apply differently to us than it did to David and the ancient Israelites, but the central ideas should still ring true to the present time.

Psalm 124

A song of ascents. Of David.

1 If the Lord had not been on our side—
    let Israel say—
2 if the Lord had not been on our side
    when people attacked us,
3 they would have swallowed us alive
    when their anger flared against us;
4 the flood would have engulfed us,
    the torrent would have swept over us,
5 the raging waters
    would have swept us away.

6 Praise be to the Lord,
    who has not let us be torn by their teeth.
7 We have escaped like a bird
    from the fowler’s snare;
the snare has been broken,
    and we have escaped.
8 Our help is in the name of the Lord,
    the Maker of heaven and earth.