Mercy > Merit

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kameron Wilds about the readings for All Saints Sunday [B] (Isaiah 25.6-9, Psalm 24, Revelation 21.1-6a, John 11.32-44). Kameron is an ordained elder for the United Methodist Church in the Virginia Conference and currently serves at Smith Memorial UMC in Collinsville, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including All Saints habits, the problem with stained glass language, really long communion tables, being mindful of the malleability of time, removing disgrace, holiness and hand sanitizer, open doors, funeral texts, and the universality of death. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Mercy > Merit

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Getting Out Of The Way

Devotional:

Job 42.17

And Job died, full and old of days. 

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Eugene Peterson died yesterday.

Peterson was a pastor, scholar, author, and poet. Throughout his life he wrote over thirty books, and served a church in Bel Air, Maryland for almost 30 years.

His name might not be familiar, but he leaves behind a legacy of bringing people closer to the Word through The Message. The Message is Peterson’s paraphrased version of the Bible for the modern vernacular. The story goes that in his early days of leading a church, he would “translate” passages in little bits as devotionals for the congregation, but as they became more and more popular, he eventually tackled the whole of scripture and had it published.

By 2015, The Message had sold more than 6 million copies.

To be clear: The Message is not a translation of the Bible, but is an interpretation of what it might sound like had the Bible been written today. There are of course problems with trying to adapt any piece of writing this way, but Peterson’s commitment to the paraphrase most definitely brought people to the church in a way that was exciting, refreshing, and life-giving.

I am grateful for Peterson’s work, and in particular The Message. I have used parts of his paraphrases throughout my ministry in order to bring people closer to the God that has come close to them. There is a comfort with hearing what God has said, as if God was saying it right now in a conversation.

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But Peterson’s contribution to the church extend far beyond The Message and his memoir (The Pastor), which was published in 2011, played a huge roll in my call to ministry. In fact, the passage below was so powerful, that I copied it in a notebook when I read it for the first time and have kept it in my top desk drawer ever since:

“What does it mean to be a church of Jesus Christ in America? We had let Luke’s storytelling in The Acts of the Apostles give us our text. We saturated our imaginations in the continuities between the conception, birth, and life of Jesus and the conception, birth, and life of the church. As we let Luke tell the story, it became clear that being the church meant that the Holy Spirit was conceiving the life of Jesus in us, much the same way the Holy Spirit had conceived the life of Jesus in Mary. We weren’t trying to be a perfect model or a glamorous church. We were trying to get out of the way and pay attention to the way God worked in the early church and was working in us. We were getting it: worship was not so much what we did, but what we let God do in and for us.” (Eugene Peterson, The Pastor. 171-172)

Like Job, Eugene Peterson lived a full life. The church is better for having had him in it and his legacy will last long after his death. His life was never so much about what he did with it, but what he let God do in and through him. 

We would be so blessed if someone said the same for us when we die. 

Devotional – Acts 4.33

Devotional:

Acts 4.33

With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.

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A father was with his four year old daughter last Christmas, and it was the first time she ever asked what the holiday meant. He explained that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, and the more they talked the more she wanted to know about Jesus so he bought a kid’s bible and read to her every night. She loved it.

They read the stories of his birth and his teachings, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of the sayings from Jesus, like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And they would talk about how Jesus teaches us to treat people the way we want to be treated. They read and they read and at some point the daughter said, “Dad, I really like this Jesus.”

Right after Christmas they were driving around town and they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix out on the front lawn. The giant cross was impossible to miss, as was the figure that was nailed to it. The daughter quickly pointed out the window and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

He realized in that moment that he never told her the end of the story. So he began explaining how it was Jesus, and how he ran afoul of the Roman government because his message was so radical and unnerving that they thought the only way to stop his message was to kill him, and they did.

The daughter was silent.

A few weeks later, after going through the whole story of what Christmas meant, the Preschool his daughter attended had the day off in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. The father decided to take the day off as well and treat his daughter to a day of play and they went out to lunch together. And while they were sitting at the table for lunch, they saw the local newspaper’s front-page story with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on it. The daughter pointed at the picture and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

“Well,” he began, “that’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher.”

And she said, “for Jesus?!”

The father said, “Yeah, for Jesus. But there was another thing he was famous for; he had his own message and said you should treat everyone the same no matter what they look like.”

She thought about it for a minute and said, “Dad, that sounds a lot like do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The dad said, “Yeah, I never thought about it like that but it’s just like what Jesus said.”

The young girl was silent again for a brief moment, and they she looked up at her dad and said, “Did they kill him too?”

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50 years ago today, while standing outside St. Joseph’s Hospital, Assistant Police Chief Henry Lux announced, “Martin Luther King is dead.” Rifle-armed police were blocking the front entrances and immediately had to hold back a crowd that gathered quickly. The city of Memphis quickly went into a state of emergency as news of Dr. King’s assassination became public.

Dr. King was in Memphis to help organize a strike of sanitation workers for higher pay and the right to union representation. Though known for his work in the Civil Rights movement, Dr. King was active in regard to a number of subjects including the Vietnam War, capitalism, and unjust economic practices. And because he was so vocal in turning things upside down (read: the first shall be last and the last shall be first), he was murdered.

Dr. King’s legacy is one filled with hope and, at the same time, frustration. He certainly left the country better than he found it, but few would argue that his dream has truly come to fruition. We are still a racially broken country, we are still held captive to the drama and economics of warfare, and the income inequality is higher now than it has ever been.

Part of what made Dr. King’s words and work so powerful is that he did what he did as a testimony to the virtues made real to him in Jesus. The Lord he met in the pages of his bible spoke decisively to him about the need to be prophetic in a time such as his. Jesus was a savior concerned with those on the margins, and therefore Dr. King believed it was his duty to be concerned with those on the margins during his lifetime.

When you look through the old speeches, the videos of the marches, and you weigh out how much he was able to accomplish in his 39 years of life, it is clear that grace was with him. But Dr. King’s vision of a better world, Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God on earth, did not die with them. Those visions are now part of our responsibility, whether that means providing voice to the voiceless, or being in solidarity with those without power, or simply befriending the friendless, there is still work to be done.

Today we give thanks for the life and the witness of Martin Luther King Jr., we reflect on the last fifty years since his assassination, and we are bold to pray that God might use us like God used Dr. King knowing full and well what might happen to us in the end.

Yet

Psalm 22.1-11

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame. But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; “Commit your cause to the Lord; let them deliver – let them rescue the one in whom he delights!” Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.

 

Last night we gathered to remember Jesus’ final night with his friends. We, like they, broke bread together and shared a cup in order to remember what Jesus did.

And while we were together we talked a lot about memory – What stories do we hold on to – What stories do we want to forget?

Part of our memories, what makes them such, is our ability to have something memorized. Think, for instance, of a beloved story you like to tell, or even one you like to hear. Think about a favorite song or movie. Can you remember the words? Can you repeat them just like the singer or the actor? We memorize that which is valuable and important to us. We internalize particular words or phrases from those whom we love and we cherish the memories they become.

I have memorized many anecdotes from my family. I could stand here tonight and fill the evening with hilarious stories from just one of my grandmothers, and come back tomorrow and do it again without repeating anything twice. Those stories are important to me, and because they are part of my family’s history, they are all the more important. Such that at any given moment, should it be required, I can pull the avenues of the narrative to the surface, and I could share the story.

During the time of Jesus life, people had profound memories of well. Some things, regardless of the sands of time remain the same. Get people together today, or 2000 years ago, for a meal and the stories start to flow. But there was a level of memory present during the time of Jesus that has all but disappeared these days.

Jesus, and his contemporaries, knew the scriptures.

And when I say they knew them, I don’t mean they could open up a bible and find the book of Malachi, or they could list of the books of the bible in order at any given notice. No, they had scriptures memorized.

As a young Jew around the first century Jesus, like many others, would pray the psalms out loud once a week. All of them. From 1 to 150. The psalms were the spoken word of the people, they were on their hearts, minds, and lips, all day long. Praying through the psalms was as natural to them as watching bad sitcoms are to us. It was part of their collective identity.

Such that when Jesus was hung on a cross to die, his final words were these: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

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It is difficult and challenging to contemplate our Lord saying those words from the cross. We might be a little more comfortable with John’s story (It is finished) or even Luke’s version (Into thy hands I commit my spirit). But according to Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ final earthly words were “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

When I need to offer a grieving family a hopeful word, I often turn to Psalm 23, that beloved collection of verses that some of us have memorized. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside still waters, he restoreth my soul. They are comforting words. But rarely, if ever, have I pulled out Psalm 22.

It’s difficult just to get past the first verse. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? We are pulled to the cross, to the torment and to the agony of Jesus yelling out into the void moments before his death.

Jesus suffers. It is both disconnected and disconnecting. In suffering on the cross he was made completely alone. Entirely and utterly alone. In this moment we are welcomed into the divine in a way not parsed out in other places of the bible. Here on the cross, in the cry of dereliction we experience the duality of Jesus’ divinity and humanity, we experience the abyss of fear and the hope of things unseen, we confront the elect and the reject.

And yet here, on the cross, with his final moments, Jesus turned to prayer. Not a final sermon on the marks of a faithful life, not a moment of divine healing. Jesus prays.

Prayer corresponds with experience. It is the way we process the moment we are in with something larger and more enduring. Prayer is what enables us to scale the impossible mountains of torment that threaten to close us off from all we have known, and prayer is what enables us to see the truth of our lives in terms of what has gone before and what is yet to come.

Of all the things we do as disciples, worshipping the crucified Jesus is possibly the strangest. It is only something we can do through the power of prayer. It is also why tonight’s worship is usually the least attended of all the worship services in a year. Tonight we glorify the Son of God who was degraded by his fellow human being as much as it is possible to be, by decree of both church and state. We worship the one who died in a way designed to subject him to utter shame and to be erased from human memory.

It is a story realer than real. It cannot be spiritualized away, nor can it be fully comprehended by we finite people. The climax of the gospel takes place in the midst of political and economic life, it is shocking and violent, it threatens the prevailing authorities, and it results in people two millennia later worshipping God nailed to a cross.

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There is a paradox in our worship tonight, a paradox as difficult as Jesus’ final words. The paradox is that the generosity of God means the crucifixion of the Son. In Him both the godly and the ungodly are justified.

According to the strange and mysterious wisdom of God, it is in the crucified death of Jesus that all of the cosmos is altered (and altar-ed). This death makes our lives possible. This death is what makes the Christian experience intelligible. This death is at the heart of who God is.

If you’re anything like me, you’re eager to jump to Easter. Enough with the crucifixion! Give me resurrection! But you can’t have one without the other.

We cannot ignore the challenging words of Jesus from the cross. We cannot imagine away, or explain away, the overwhelmingly jarring nature of the Son of God crying out to the Father in fear.

But of course, that’s not where the Psalm ends.

Psalm 22 contains what it possibly the greatest “yet” in scripture… “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.”

On that “Yet” hangs both the Old and New Testament. In that “Yet” we confront the true paradox of the crucifixion: that Jesus is both elected and rejected, that he knows sorrow and hope, that he dies and will rise again.

Jesus knew the power of “yet.”

But we must wait for Easter. We have to take the terrible time to sit in the shadow of the cross, to see in this first century man all the fullness of God, to recognize our sin in him nailed to the tree.

Good Friday, unlike just about anything else we do as a church, cannot be tied up neatly in a bow. We can’t fast-forward to Sunday morning. We, like the disciples in the distance, have to look at our Lord on the cross and wait. We have to wait for God to do a new thing. We have to recognize that this is what God did for us, and not the other way around.

We will leave this place tonight under the cover of darkness. And yet… Jesus is the light of the world.

The words of our prayers and hymns will fall silent. And yet… God cannot be silenced.

The shadow will feel darker than ever. And yet…

Devotional – Psalm 118.1

Devotional:

Psalm 118.1

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!

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Holy Week is easily the busiest week in the life of most churches. While the palm branches are still resting on the floor of the sanctuary, pastors and lay leaders are frantically putting together the last minutes items for Holy Week services. Meanwhile, families are frantically planning Easter Sunday meals, and making sure they have enough eggs and goodies for all the children. And because we are so busy this week, we often forget to think about, and reflect on, Jesus’ final week:

It was early in the morning when Jesus sent two of his disciples to a village atop the Mount of Olives to find a donkey. The day had come for Jesus to enter the holy city of Jerusalem during Passover, a time when the city’s population would balloon up to 200,000 people entering to celebrate. On a Sunday morning, while the crowds gathered with palm branches, Jesus entered Jerusalem. Five days later he would be killed on a cross.

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The two disciples procured a donkey and Jesus prepared to make his triumphal entry. Riding on a donkey was a richly symbolic act, one that can be traced back to the time of David. To arrive in the holy city on a donkey calls back to the prophet Zechariah who declared, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.”

As he rode toward Jerusalem, droves of people arrived on the streets and they began to waves palm branches while he passed. They were so enraptured by Jesus that they took off their cloaks and placed them on the road with their palms in order to create a royal pathway for their king. They shouted things like “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” and “Hosanna!” which means “Save us!”

At the same time, on the other side of the city, Pontius Pilate (the Roman Governor of Judea) entered Jerusalem with at least 1,000 soldiers to demonstrate the power of Rome during the Jewish celebration of the Passover. It was a show of force to prevent the people from revolting against their imperial rulers while they remembered that time when God had delivered them from captivity in Egypt.

But with Jesus, there was no show of force. Instead of armor and swords, the people took off their cloaks and waved palm branches. Instead of cowering away in fear they rejoiced in the humble man on the back of a donkey.

While the distance between the Lord and the city grew closer and closer, while the crowds were dancing and shouting, he began to cry. He looked out over the holy city and he wept for Jerusalem. He wept knowing that he was entering as the prince of peace, and within the next few days the very people who were begging for his salvation with their palm branches would reject him and call for his crucifixion.

And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

On Monday, Jesus made his way to them Temple with countless other Jews. With the episode that had transpired the day before, all eyes were on the humble man with expectation of deliverance. As his feet walked over hallowed ground, Jesus encountered the moneylenders and changers who were taking advantage of all the Jews in Jerusalem. The prices for clean animals necessary for sacrificial rituals were vastly inflated to the benefit of the merchants and the religious elite.

Jesus, who had spent the better part of three years berating the elite for taking advantage of the poor and outcasts, Jesus, who had told the rich young ruler to sell everything he had and give it to the poor, became incensed when he saw the poor being ripped off in the name of God. He walked straight over to the tables and he lifted them off the ground and disrupted everything in the temple. He threw the merchants out of the Temple and declared that his Father’s house had been turned into a den of robbers.

The elite and powerful, who had heard about this mysterious man claiming to be the Son of Man, now had their attention on Jesus. It was one thing to have a crowd with palm branches welcoming him into the city, but to disrupt the economic scheme they had established was going too far. From this point forward, the tides began to turn against Jesus. The leaders started looking for a way to discredit him, or to remove him completely. For as long as Jesus stayed in Jerusalem, their power would be in question, and they would no longer make the money they had planned on.

And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

On Tuesday, Jesus once again entered the Temple and he began to teach. If people were excited to see him after his entry in Jerusalem, they were now even more eager to listen to the one who had throne the merchants out of the sacred space. The Pharisees and religious leaders began to interrupt his teaching and demanded to know whom he thought he was to speak with such authority. Jesus, the one who shared parables with his disciples and followers, used parables to respond to their accusations. Over and over again he used examples to show how the powerful and lost sight of their responsibility to take care of God’s creation and he labeled them “hypocrites.”

He accused them of neglecting to practice what they preached, he called them “snakes” and a “brood of vipers” and he told them they had failed to do the one thing required of them which was to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbors as themselves.

Jesus had a following, he had entered with a display of peace, but he had removed the leaders’ economic disparity, and now he had called them hypocrites. They tried to trap him in his words, but he continued to point to the love of God in all times and in all places.

And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

On Wednesday Jesus left the arena of the Temple and continued his teaching on the Mount of Olives. Some of the disciples made comments about the beauty and the magnificence of the Temple and Jesus responded by foretelling the destruction of the temple and his own body. He revealed images of God’s cosmic plan for the world made manifest in Jerusalem and called for his disciples to stay vigilant no matter what.

He used parables to describe the call of his disciples and ended by saying that his followers would be blessed in the end if they had fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the prisoner.

Word about Jesus continued to spread fast throughout Jerusalem and the leaders learned that he was now prophesying the end of their rule and the destruction of the temple. Gone was the joy the people felt on Palm Sunday. Fear was present with the leaders and the elite.

And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

On Thursday Jesus continued to teach and gathered with his twelve disciples in the upper room for the Passover celebration. Around the table they remembered God’s great work in the delivery of the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt to the Holy Land; they remembered God’s actions in the lives of God’s people including themselves. But before the supper was over, Jesus did something radical. He took a loaf of bread, gave thanks to God, broke it, gave it to his friends and said, “This is my body, and I’m giving it for you.” Later, he took the cup, gave thanks to God, passed it to his friends and said, “This is my blood, and I’m pouring it out for you and for the world.” Even though he knew that in short time his disciple Judas would betray him he still shared this incredible meal and gift with his friend.

Later that evening, they arrived in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus urged his disciples to keep awake while he prayed. He knelt on the ground and he communed with his Father and prayed about what was about to happen. But he ended the prayer by saying, “Lord, with you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” In essence he prayed, “Let thy will be done.”

When Jesus finished praying, Judas arrived with soldiers. They grabbed and arrested Jesus. The disciples fled into the distance. Jesus was dragged back into the city to be tried for blasphemy.

And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

On Friday Jesus was brought to the Roman leader Pontius Pilate. The leaders demanded that he be crucified and executed, but Pilate could find no fault with Jesus. He then brought Jesus before the Jewish people and they chanted with loud and bellowing voices, “Crucify him!” The same people who had gathered on the road with palm branches yelling “Save us!” were now demanding Jesus’ death. In order to appease the crowds and the Jewish leaders, Pilate sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion.

The soldiers whipped and beat Jesus nearly to the point of death and then, to mock him, they placed an opulent robe on his soldiers, and they made a crown of thorns for his head. They forced Jesus to carry his torture device, a cross, on his shoulders all the way to the place called The Skull. The crowds berated him on either side while he marched forward to his death. “If you really are the Messiah, save yourself!” “Where are all your disciples now?!” “Some King of the Jews you are!”

He arrived at the top of the hill and the soldiers nailed his hands and feet to the cross and hung him in the sky. For six hours Jesus’ life slowly slipped away while the crowds continued to mock him from the ground. With some of his final breaths he offered a prayer that has haunted the world ever since, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” With two thieves on either side hanging on crosses, while some of his disciples watched from the distance, he died.

And there was evening and there was morning, the final week.

Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey proclaiming and inaugurating a time of humility and peace. Jesus rebuked the elite for preying on the poor and weak. Jesus confronted the hypocrites in leadership. Jesus called his followers to love God and neighbor. Jesus shared his final meal with the one who would betray him. Jesus was crowned with thorns and enthroned on a cross in the sky. Jesus forgave his murders from the moment of his death. And Jesus died so that we might participate in his kingdom and salvation.

An Exodus For The Rest Of Us

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy and Jason Micheli about the readings for the The Liturgy of the Passion [Year B] (Isaiah 50.4-9a, Psalm 31.9-16, Philippians 2.5-11, Mark 14.1-15.47). Teer serves as the associate pastor at Mt. Olivet UMC and Jason is the executive pastor of Aldersgate UMC (both in Northern Virginia). Our conversation covers a range of topics including talking about ourselves as little as possible, the freedom to fail, memorizing scriptures and prayers, an accursed way to die, shame, the gospels as television channels, the nude dude, and disappearing from the story. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: An Exodus For The Rest Of Us

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Devotional – Ephesians 2.10

Devotional:

Ephesians 2.10

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

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In a few minutes I will leave for a local funeral home to preside over a Service of Death and Resurrection for a longtime member of Cokesbury Church. I never met Frances Tyrrell, and yet I will be the one tasked with standing before her family and friends and offering words of grace, comfort, and hope.

It is a strange and mysterious thing that we ask people to speak on behalf of the dead, particularly when the person speaking never met the person everyone has gathered to celebrate and mourn.

After meeting with the family to begin making arrangements, they graciously lent me a copy of the Woodbridge Women’s Club’s History. Frances was an original member and pioneered a lot of the volunteer work that was done throughout the community. I flipped through the interview she gave and learned all about her life, from her birth, to her marriage, to her children, to her work. But there was one particular section that stood out.

At some point the interviewer, after realizing how deeply involved Frances had been in serving other people asked Frances, “So what does your family think about all this time you’ve given and all this work you’ve done?” To which she replied, “I never asked them.”

Rare these days are the individuals who do good works simply because God created them to be that way. More often we seek to serve such that we can be seen and congratulated for the work we’ve done.

But that wasn’t the case with Frances.

Paul says, “We are who God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before hand to be our way of life.” I can’t help but feel as if we’ve largely lost sight of the truth of this verse from Ephesians. We might think, instead, that our way of life is to earn all we can and save all we can. Or we might think our way of life is about building that perfect house, and having 2.5 children, and constructing a pristine white picket fence. Or we might think our way of life is any number of other things.

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But how often do we consider the fact that we have been made to serve? When was the last time we made the needs of others our priority instead of our own? How often do we help others simply because we were made this way rather than because we think God expects us to?

When we come to the end of our days, when people gather together to remember who we were and what we did, let us pray they remember us, like Frances, for our commitment to others.