The #rethinkchurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “Blessed.” We read about the story of Mary and Martha’s confrontation during a visit with Jesus during our devotional reading for today. In reading John 12:1-8, we read the story of a pair of sisters. One of the sisters is busy caring for the needs of the visitors in a culturally appropriate way. The other sister is learning from Jesus instead of helping, which might not have fit many of that culture’s norms.
Today I picked a photo taken at a nearby restaurant during a recent visit with my kids. They were eating tortilla chips, playing, and having a great time together. Even my eldest seems pretty happy behind that hidden smirk.
I really cannot afford to eat out much with my kids when they visit. Eating out is expensive, especially when you can cook better food for less at home. Often, I find myself thinking a few days in advance of their visits about what we are going to eat, what I will prepare, and what snacks we can take on the road so that we won’t stop somewhere that will cost me an arm and a leg.
It may seem like eating out that day was an extravagance I cannot afford. My wallet agrees with that opinion, but for one afternoon a few visits back, there was time for laughter, joking around, and sitting with my kids instead of cooking a meal, serving a meal, and cleaning up the meal. It was such a blessing to just be with them and to be in their company.
I don’t know if the joy of being in someone’s company is why Mary stepped outside of cultural norms, but if it was, I completely understand. It is sometimes good to just be with someone as they go about life. Could Mary have listened while helping Martha? Maybe she could have done both, but I completely agree with Jesus. Mary was doing a pretty great thing by choosing to spend those moments the way that she did.
The #rethinkchurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “bring.” As someone who spends a lot of time taking pictures in nature or pictures of family, the idea of connecting one of my photos to the word “bring” was a bit of a challenge. Eventually, after a great search a long way into my photos, I found a picture of the blessing bags we have been handing out as a congregation to people in need. Each blessing bag has a small amount of food, water, and often simple necessaries like a comb, hand sanitizer, or a new toothbrush.
The idea of the blessing bag is simple. We may not hand out money to people on a street corner, but we will do our best to give them something concrete. How do we have these on hand when we come across someone in need? The answer is that we bring them in our cars, carry them in a backpack, or have them on hand when we are somewhere that they may bless someone in need.
In our devotional today, we read the story of Jesus’ interactions with a Canaanite woman who came to him in need. The story is in Matthew 15:21-28. Jesus’ dealt with the Canaanite woman with compassion.
At the end of the day, the purpose of the blessing bags is to be able to share compassion with others in a concrete way. Does everyone take them? No. Do some people really get frustrated that we are not handing them money? Yes. Why do we do it anyway?
We do it because we want to share with compassion. I know that when I hand out blessing bags it is often for the simple reason that I want to be compassionate but I don’t carry money with me. The closest branch of the bank where I have my account is in Corning, so I tend to do most of my transactions digitally. I cannot give people cash because I don’t have any cash on me, which is good because cash tends to burn a hole in my pocket.
I know that others hand them out for a very different reason. They hand out the bags because they want to do something more than hand someone money. Clean socks may not mean much to me, but to someone who never gets clean socks, they are a gift. Socks, water, and even hand sanitizer offered during a pandemic: each of these are kindnesses offered by one human being who sees the humanity in someone else. I see compassion in that loving act.
So, what do I connect with compassion and “bring?” Blessing bags! May God bless them, the hands that share them, and the hands that receive them.
My photo for today is a picture of a single leaf that I found fluttering besides a walkway in the Sapsucker Woods north of Ithaca. I walked through the woods last fall and saw this life. As I contemplated how the leaf sat on the end of the branch alone, I found a kinship with the leaf as it fluttered alone.
Is it better to laugh than to cry? Not always. It is certainly better to come to a place where you can laugh with Jesus rather than laugh at Jesus. Grief is a powerful thing and can cause a great amount of pain and disorientation. Would the parents laugh in the same way if Jesus had arrived before their child passed away? Often grief blinds us to the possibilities in front of us. The parents in the story with Christ were clearly in a place where they could not see beyond their grief.
I chose the picture of the leaf for “enough” for several reasons. First, the leaf was a beautiful leaf. As lonely as it seemed, it was still lovely. I am also enough even when I am alone. You are enough even when you feel lost or alone.
Second, I chose the leaf as an affirmation of the fact that last fall while I was on an afternoon walk there was enough goodness in the world that I was shaken out of my thoughts. I lay on the ground to get this photo from this angle. Would I rather have been somewhere else? Yes, but even when I was disoriented and somewhere I did not want to be, there was enough beauty in the world that goodness shone through my own sorrow.
Third, I chose the leaf as an affirmation of the fall. What I think is permanent today will one day fade away. My life is that of a leaf. One day it will be done. God willing, one day another leaf will fill my place in the world. I hope you have such a hope as well.
In contrast to this image, the theme for today in our devotional revolves around grief. Jesus was the son of God, but also was the son of Joseph, Mary’s husband. As the devotional notes, Joseph has likely passed away by the time of the events of holy week.
There is an interesting question that connects the image of a coffee cup with questions of grief. What will happen to my coffee cup after I am gone? I have three cups in my church office. I rotate between an orange mug and a black mug, but I also have a mug covered in gnomes for when my children visit. What will happen to those mugs when I go?
I have served in many churches over the years and almost every church has a cupboard full of mugs. Some of the mugs are from church events, others are from various homes, and others have just shown up over the years. Will my mugs end up in a cupboard somewhere? Will someone else enjoy the joy of coffee from an orange mug or feel as serious when they drink from my black mug?
In the end, I do not know where my mug will end up. This is a simple reality at this point in my life. I neither grieve the fact that I will one day be gone nor mourn the fact that I do not know where my mugs will end up when everything is said and done. What I do know is that I should take today seriously because there are things far more important that I shall leave behind. Even more important than those things are the people that I will leave behind.
It doesn’t matter to me where the mug will end up, but it does matter whether or not I have a loving relationship with my children, my family, and the people I care about. I hope that Joseph left no relationship broken and no words unsaid. I hope that I might leave no words unsaid.
The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “Living.” Throughout this week we have been looking at hunger and fullness in our devotional, but I wanted to take a moment to note that there is more than one type of hunger.
Last fall I spent a lot of time walking and praying. One place I went for an extended walk was in Chenango Valley State Park. If you spend enough time in Chenango Valley State Park, you will realize that there are definitely places where a lot of people travel and places where few people travel.
During my first few visits to the park, I spent a lot of time walking around the large loop which surrounds one of the lakes and crosses over what could be called the isthmus between the two lakes. As I continued to visit over the years, I found various walking paths down near the edges of the lakes, but there was one path that always tempted me. It just sort of went off into nowhere from behind a picnic shelter.
I wondered what might be back behind that picnic shelter visit after visit until I was so hungry to know what was back there that my dog and I went out exploring. We hiked, hiked, and hiked some more. Eventually we came out of one section of the path and found ourselves at the top of a hill looking over Chenango Valley. The view was breathtaking and there was this cute bench setup for people to rest and look down upon the valley.
This photo has little to nothing to do with actual hunger, but it does have a lot to say about how hunger for knowledge, love, or even food can affect the way we think. When we find ourselves hungry, our priorities can change, our limits can be stretched, and occasionally we realize that God is out there beyond the realm of where we are full and “happy” with the things around us.
I invite you to ask yourself if there is a place in your life where you are hungry. Is the hunger meant to teach you something or stretch you beyond the places where you are safe and comfortable?
Sometimes everything aligns in a moment of serendipity. There have been several times where there have been challenges throughout this season of connecting devotional to the #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt. Today is not one of those days.
The first thing that I do in the process of writing these entries for Lent is to find photos that have potential to connect with the prompt. Today’s prompt word is “repent” and I found one photo and one photo alone that fit the prompt.
Last year, after a particularly stormy day, I decided to walk from my home to the nearby lake. It is a ten mile trip which is unfortunately only half downhill and unfortunately begins by going downhill. In other words, after I was halfway done the walk became much more difficult.
Still, I walked down to the lake and I was amazed by the amount of water. The water had risen far above the level of the ordinarily dry walkways and parkland. Looking out over the water, I was shocked by the way that features like trees, signs, and grills that I normally walked past on dry ground were being accosted by waves.
Why choose this photo for the word “repent?” It reminded me of Noah. What is Jesus discussing in our devotional? Noah! I even highlighted Luke 17:27, which says in the NRSV: “They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.”
How could I pick any other image than the one good photo I have of a flood? In the days before the flood, people were walking the shore while looking for sea glass, grilling at picnics, and fishing on the pier. Suddenly the floodwaters came and there was nothing to do for it, but to give thanks to God that the storm had abated and the water would soon return to normal levels.
It seems silly to think that there might have been a person grilling or a child playing on any other day. It seems silly to compare these minor inconveniences to the “Day of the Lord,” but we all will face moments when we face things we never expected. The Day of the Lord comes to each of us even if the specific day of the Lord that Jesus was referring to in this gospel may have fallen upon Jerusalem long ago.
It is perhaps wisdom gained over the years, but I wonder if it is wiser to live a life where you have kept your life in order than to live a life where the end may come and you have not done all that needed to be done or said all that needed to be said. Perhaps it is better to live with a repentant attitude than to assume there will always be a tomorrow.
This past Monday morning, I had to drive down to Vestal in order to get my tooth fixed. Back in 2016 I had a golden crown put on a tooth which I have since privately called my “piratical tooth.” If my floss breaks while flossing, my tooth is likely being piratical. If a piece of food needs a good crunching, I often smile as I bare my teeth and chomp down with my golden tooth. I love my golden tooth and on Sunday night it tried to pull a runner.
I was nervous about the price of gas on the ride down to Vestal, which lasted until I was told that my dentist no longer accepts my insurance plan. I was then anxious about the cost of the tooth, but told the dental hygienist that I would have to have the work done without insurance. It hurt to breathe too hard over the tooth, I had accidentally had one splash of coffee on it which caused me to howl, and I frankly needed to eat at some point and would need my teeth.
I was worried about the cost, especially knowing that my wife would be expecting a check to help support the kids even if I had to pay for my tooth to be repaired. I was very anxious, but I decided to pray through the fear and have the work done. After a delightful hour chatting with the hygenist about everything from x-ray procedures, to being okay with new medication as we age (as long as we held out longer than our parents had before need it), to the fact that nobody likes the dentist but they aren’t nearly as scary as physical therapists, we came to the crux of the matter. I never once mentioned my fear about paying, but had decided to have a good conversation and a good attitude even though I was quaking in my boots.
The dentist didn’t charge me. They decided that this was just life with a crown, noted that I had the crown put in place nearly a decade ago, and decided that it must have been a fault in the cement. They knew I had a piece of candy and it pulled out the crown, but they decided to waive the fees for everything including the x-rays. I was so incredibly grateful.
What does it mean to be wealthy? For me, on Monday being wealthy was being in the hands of someone who could afford to be generous and guarantee their work long after I had gotten my original money’s worth. I have kids younger than that tooth but they decided that generosity was more important than profit today and I am grateful. Tonight I am wealthy, for I have a piratical tooth in working order again! I can chew without pain and that’s a gift of wealth that many people in history have not known.
I caught this seagull flying over the beach at Taughannock State Park last year. It was up in the wind, gliding around and looking for food. Well, I say that it was looking for food, but it honestly just seemed like it was having an awesome time surfing in the wind currents.
I have used this image to talk about the Holy Spirit before and probably will again, but let me reiterate what I have said in church. I grew up thinking that seagulls were flying rats. They would attack you with their enthusiasm if you dared to feed them, acted like vultures in the parking lot of fast food places, and there was no punishment for someone you didn’t like worse than dumping a bunch of fries on their car.
This flying rat, despicable creature, loathsome creation… My dear God in Heaven, it is absolutely stunning when the sun shines through those wings. The delicate wings, the beautiful feathers, the artistry involved in giving such beauty to something as common as a seagull. If that’s not true wealth being flaunted by the Creator, then I would be hard pressed to find another example (unless Ratatouille is based on a real story, which it better not be).
Our devotional reading for today begins with the line “Christianity is a mystical faith, but not a magical faith.” Depending on the version you are reading, there is unfortunately a typo in that line which makes it read “Christianity is mystical faith…” .Even now, my editing program is having a conniption over that phrasing and it makes me wonder how I missed it when reading the devotional through multiple times while searching for errors and typos.
Christianity is a mystical faith that connects the practical physical reality with something beyond normal understanding. In the scripture reading we read of thousands of people eating a shared meal after one child came forward with five loaves of bread and two fish. The story is amazing, but it is not the only story of how people have seen the wondrous happen without the blessing of incredible wealth.
Soldiers from two different nations stopped during the first World War for a day of shared peace on Christmas. The peace could not have been bought or sold, but it was shared freely with people who shared the same faith on different sides of a war as they remembered the words “Peace on earth, and good will to all.” Victims have forgiven people who have committed atrocities against them simply because God asked them to forgive others. A sailor engaged in human trafficking came to a point of conversion and decided to stand against the very practices he once engaged in for a living. As an abolitionist, he both advocated for the dignity of the people he once harmed and sang about the amazing grace that changed his life.
Often without a world of riches at their command and often against the expectations and desires of the wealthy and powerful, people have dug into empty pockets and found that they were far richer than it looked on the outside. God has a way of showing up in a miraculous way to provide for those in need, whether it be through a changed heart, a call to forgiveness, the same hymns sung in different languages, or even the willingness to share found in a boy with five loaves of bread and two fish.
The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “good.” I am blessed in many ways, but being a parent has often stretched me beyond the ends of what I thought were my limits. I have cried for my children, held them while they are sick, prayed over them at a distance, and now regularly wake up in the middle of the night to wonder where they are and how they are doing at that moment.
I have not always been the perfect parent, but that is not the fault of my children. I often feel like a poor father and I cannot give them everything they want in this world. Somehow, I have still been considered worthy enough by God to be their dad. I love them deeply. They are good, even when I pray for a way to be a better father. On some days, I even allow myself to believe that I must be good if I have been entrusted with such amazing kids.
What a powerful thing for the visible incarnation of the invisible God to say about people! For years the temple in Jerusalem had been filled with both those who appeared righteous and those who appeared “broken.” Sacrifices were brought in thanksgiving by those who were right with God and brought in repentance by those who had broken the covenant laws. The faithful and the sinners worshiped in the same space with two very different purposes.
When God did come to fulfill ancient promises of blessing, you might assume that God would have come to bless the people who looked righteous on the outside. If you believed that God had been willing to bless the faithful with abundant crops, fruitful families, and wealth, then it makes sense that God would come to bless the righteous. God might help those who had asked forgiveness, but it seems like common sense that God would first bless those who had been faithful and apparently blessed by God.
For Jesus to say that he came to call sinners and not the righteous was quite shocking to many people. The smoke that rose from the temple day after day in an attempt for people to honor God and gain divine favor might be lovely, but in the end, Christ was more interested in sharing mercy with those who were hurting instead of increasing the number of sacrifices.
In choosing an image for today’s #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day challenge, I chose an image of the sun pouring down the closest thing we get to a burnt offering at our church. It did take place outside the church, but the meat was neither burnt nor offered as a sacrifice. The sun was pouring down through the smoke of a chicken barbecue.
The prompt was the word “glory.” I chose the image because it was a pretty amazing and glorious sight to see the sun pouring through the smoke. It is also glorious that God no longer requires us to keep bringing fowl, cattle, sheep, and goats for burnt sacrifices. Jesus came out of a love for mercy and God’s mercy covers us through the love of Christ shown through Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, and exaltation. I believe that Christ’s merciful love will be seen again when Christ returns in what will likely be a different type of cloud than the smoke that comes from a bbq.
The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day Challenge for today revolves around the word “dazzling.” When thinking about the word dazzling, a lot of images come to mind. My thoughts are filled with vibrant, bright, and amazing concepts. A starry night can be dazzling as can the sunshine pouring through stained glass windows.
At first glance, the idea of something being dazzling stands a bit at odds with the devotional reading for the yesterday. We read through the beatitudes in Luke 6 yesterday (which will happen often during this Lenten season with the beatitudes). We are asked by our devotional this week to consider how Jesus views both poverty and wealth.
What does it mean when Jesus says that the poor shall have the kingdom of God? What does it mean when Jesus says that the rich have already received their consolation? How does this reversal of how wealth is commonly seen affect our understanding of Christ? How does it relate to what is truly dazzling?
At Trumansburg through this season we are nailing words to our cross on Sundays. Yesterday we nailed both wisdom and foolishness to the cross. After the service someone came up to me and asked why we nailed both to the cross. Why would surrender wisdom to God on the cross? It was a great question and the simplest answer is that we are nailing our understanding to the cross.
To put it simply, we tend to have an upside down understanding. We think someone is doing well when we see someone with an expensive car, nice clothes, and money to buy anything they want. When someone walks through the door of the church with dirty clothes, an unwashed face, and a gurgle in their stomach, we sometimes wonder what is going on with them. We assume one is blessed and the other is struggling.
Jesus states that the poor will one day have the kingdom of God and that the rich have already received their blessings. In light of eternity, we can understand why Jesus says that we should be wary of becoming and even be sympathetic for the rich who seem to have everything but one day may have nothing compared to those who are suffering now. Even if you do not like this interpretation of the scriptures and wish to shift to language like “poor in Spirit” to shift away from a glorification of poverty, it is hard to get around Jesus’ warning about being rich in Luke.
Sunrise during the first week of 2022
So, what photo did I pick when I wanted to think of something dazzling that had nothing to do with having riches? I wanted to share a photo of something that not only was available to everyone and was likely to be seen only by the people who woke up early to put their nose to the grindstone, woke up early due to restlessness, and generally only seen by those who were either up late working or at least not sleeping in late. It is imperfect as some people work odd hours, but I have faith people can understand why a sunrise is something that is both dazzling and available to the rich and poor alike.
Throughout the readings from our devotional for this week there is an exploration of wealth. What does it mean to be truly wealthy? For Jesus there was a difference between having things and being truly wealthy. One could reasonably argue that a woman who has two coins that she can afford to give to God should be seen as being richer than a person with a wallet bursting at the seams while struggling to let go of the tiniest sliver of their fortune.
The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt is the word “Pray.” In selecting a photo for today, I pondered through a great number of photos. In the end, I selected a beautiful flower standing out from the green leaves.
The flower blossom is quite beautiful. The stamen of the flower are outstanding in beauty and quite literally standing out like yellow hands that are waiting to shake an insect’s hand. The purple petals are an inviting shade that contrasts nicely with the green leaves and stems that surround them. If I had to choose what part of this plant to be, it seems like it would be lovely to be this blossom. You could say it seems like it would be a rich experience to be so bold, beautiful, and vibrant.
At the same time, true wealth might rest in being grateful to be whatever part of the flower you might be in this life. You might not wish to be a green leaf or a tough stem, but what an amazing gift it might be to experience the joy of being green or woody.
Many people spend their lives wishing that they were someone else, own something else, or have more of what they already have in this life. People scrabble, hoard, and envy the people around them in lives marked with competition, jealousy, and striving.
What would it look like if we prayed less about having more and prayed more about being grateful? What would it look like if we prayed to have what we need and were grateful for those blessings? What would it look like if we prayed less about having riches and prayed more from a place of gratitude for what we have in this life?
I may never be a vibrant purple flower, but I might be an amazing woody stem. If I can find the richness of having a gruff exterior with a tough hide, then I will be truly wealthy even without the yellow highlights.
The phrase itself refers back to the reading from Matthew 6:5-6. In that passage, Jesus teaches that when people pray they should seek to pray in secret. In the NRSV, Jesus says. “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
As we pray, what is waiting in the closet of our hearts? When we go to pray, what are we sharing with God inside of our hearts and souls? As it is Sunday and a day of celebration, it is fitting that the #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt is the word “celebrate.”
Like many people, I find that it is great to celebrate with a treat. A few months ago, my kids and I were celebrating time together when we decided to make scones for breakfast. We wanted something sweet, but money has been tight.
We dug through the freezer and cupboards and found the ingredients for scones. My middle child found the chocolate chips in the back of the freezer, I found the right type of flour, and my youngest happily knew where we store the butter in the fridge. We put everything together, rolled out the dough, and baked the scones.
What is in the closet of my heart when I think of the word “celebrate?” My closet is filled with hopes and dreams. What does my prayer look like as I think about celebrating? It is full of joy for the celebrations of the past and pleading for celebrations in the future.
Does the prayer mean less because I do not lift it up in church during the prayers of the people? Does the church have a magical microphone that enables God to hear those prayers better? On both counts, the answer is “no.” If anything, the prayers I pray in my heart are likely all the more sacred as they dwell between God and me alone.
Whatever your prayer life is like today, I pray that you know that God hears our prayers. We do not need to stand on a street corner or have a microphone to be heard by God. To be sure, it is a powerful thing to pray together. It is great to be encouraged by praying with others, comforted by sharing prayers with others, and blessed by being invited into prayer for others. Still, the prayers of our quiet spaces are just as sacred to the God that calls us to come and pray in secret.
The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “Protect.” The scripture reading in our devotional today is a story (found in Luke 6:6-11) of Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath. The individual had a hand that is described in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible as being “withered.”
While the daily prompts have generally fit nicely with our devotional, today’s prompt is a bit challenging. I do not always do yoga, but I have been known to stretch ideas when necessary. Hopefully I will not stretch the idea of protecting too far.
What an interesting thing it is to see Jesus love someone and have compassion despite the fact that other people did not see his actions as being holy or righteous. The healing Christ performed on the Sabbath may have been fine on another day, but to violate the Sabbath commandments to avoid work seemingly struck them as a violation of the law.
At one level, I have to admit that I find the reaction of the religious leaders to be an understandable reaction. Their reaction might even be seen as admirable if you consider the extent of their commitment to their faith. While their heart was clearly in a different place than Jesus’ heart, it is understandable that there might be a push towards a very strict faith. The people in our story were living in a world that seemingly had turned against the people of God through the powerful forces of foreign empires and armies. They believed fiercely in their faith because they were likely concerned about losing their way if they loosened their grasp.
Still, as admirable as their tenacity was in such circumstances, they still missed the point. Jesus saw an individual who was hurt and who needed compassion. The people were so focused on the rules that they lost their perspective. I wish I could say that this was a problem that has disappeared over the centuries, but the modern church has often struggled with compassion and love when confronted with hurt people who are easily labeled as “sinners.”
In choosing a photo to portray this point, I went through my old photos and found a picture of my dog Lily standing underneath the trees in one of our favorite spots on the Interloken trail in the Finger Lakes National Forest. Lily looked so noble while looking around to make certain that everything was safe and that we were alone in the fields.
I still do not know how to tell a dog that we are sitting in the middle of a pasture that is fenced in on every side. There are no predators in the field. On that particular day, there weren’t even any cattle in sight. We were in an empty field and there was no reason to be anxious.
I have noticed over the years that we often get our hackles up and prepare to defend ourselves and our faith from threats that really aren’t threats. At the best of those times, we look like Lily being overprotective in an empty field. At the worst of times, we end up causing or threatening real harm to people who have done nothing more than have a withered hand on the Sabbath.
Personally, I plan to spend some time today thinking about the fact that there may be places in my life where I am dead set on protecting something and possibly missing the forest for the trees. I know that my dog isn’t the only silly creature in my home.
The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “alone.” What a word for contemplation, especially for a father in the midst of working his way through a separation! “Alone” is a word that I have pondered many times over the past few months.
A phrase stands out in our devotional reading for today: “Even when put in a challenging place, Jesus responds to challenge with compassion.” If we are called to become more like Jesus during this journey towards the cross, then what does it look like when we seek to respond to our challenges with compassion?
When writing this section of the devotional, my life was in a far more different place. As I work through this devotional alongside the members of my church, it is with a sense of wonder. Who was the person who wrote these words? I remember the hours working on this devotional, but now see the passages with different eyes and definitely answer the questions differently than I would have when I wrote this devotional.
In selecting a photo for today, I wanted to think about what it means to truly be alone. At the beginning of this oddly horrifying and challenging set of circumstances, I found myself filled with grief over the quiet house, the silent bedrooms, and the challenges of cooking for fewer people. Now, I find myself often coming across beautiful and wonderful things that are bitterly sweet.
I took this photo on a cold winter’s day while walking with my dog down a nearby trail. The path was empty of anyone, although there was clearly evidence that I was not the first person to enter the woods. For the entirety of the journey, I was alone with my dog. The wind blew through the branches, the dog snuffled through snow drifts and marked the snow, but it was otherwise silent.
It was beautifully still and silent. A world of icy stillness and solitude for just my dog and me. The sunlight shone through the branches and the snow sparkled underneath golden beams. It was truly amazing that I was able to see such beauty and it felt like that moment was for me and me alone. In the beauty and quiet, I felt as if God was walking right there with me.
It was sweet to know that I still matter enough that God draws near to me in such still spaces. It was sweet to know that God loves me deeply and truly despite the challenges of the past few months. It was also bitter to realize that I might have shared such a moment with my children a year ago.
How do I respond to these challenging moments with compassion? How do I love the people who have broken my heart through either their choices or simply doing their work? These are thoughts for my journal and not my blog, but I can state that this is where the journey for me begins today.
The word of the day for the #ReThinkChurch Photo A Day campaign is “Full.” In our devotional, Ash Wednesday revolves around the depth of old words. Our devotional journey begins with the reminder that: “Old words whisper out over many pews today.” The old words do resonate throughout this day and throughout the season ahead of us.
The traditional words that might ring through your memories may be “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Perhaps you remember hearing “Repent, and believe the gospel.” Perhaps the words that ring through your memories are not rooted in old and meaningful liturgies. Perhaps you hear are “The journey has begun. Let us journey together with Christ.”
In contemplating the words that ring out through my memory thanks the Photo-A-Day, I remember the words that have historically have little to do with Ash Wednesday, even if they are fitting. I remember two lines from the Wesley Covenant Prayer, which is often shared each January by Methodist congregations. The lines are “Let me be full. Let me be empty.”
What does it mean to be full? One photo I considered using is the photo I edited of the window with sheaves of wheat from our sanctuary. The reason I would share such a photo is that I want to be filled with God’s love and light to the point where I am gathered in with the harvest. I do not desire to be set aside or blown away by the wind. I want to be gathered in as a treasure. I want my life to be so full of goodness that I would be gathered in with the wheat.
At the same time: “Let me be full. Let me be empty.” I want to be the person that God want me to be. If my life is filled with glorious goodness and obvious giftedness, so be it. If I am easily seen as a person whose life should be gathered in, so be it. Also, if I seek to be faithful but stumble throughout my days, so be it. If I seek to be easily gathered in but end up rubbing all of the other stalks of wheat the wrong way or end up being a cornstalk in the middle of the wheat, so be it.
Ultimately, the old words whisper out. This season is about the fact that God’s grace was necessary. Jesus walked down the road on a journey of redemption and we all need the love that Jesus shared long ago. I would be full, but even if I am empty, God’s grace is truly what I need on this journey.
I think this is the photo that I will end up using today: a tomato growing on a vine in the middle of winter. By all rights, the photo makes no sense. Who grows tomatoes in the middle of winter? Will it even taste the same after spending the winter under a grow lamp? Will it be delicious or weird? Will it become a vibrant healthy tomato or simply fall off the vine one day? Will the flowers nearby ever grow their own blessings or will they fall to the counter in exhausted emptiness? I don’t know. Let it be full. Let it be empty. An excellent analogy and start to a season of both wonder and solemnity.
“Self-made people, and all heroic spiritualities, will try to manufacture an even stronger self by willpower and determination–to put them back in charge and seeming control. Usually, most people admire this, not realizing the unbending, sometimes proud, and eventually rigid personality that will be the long term result. They will then need to continue in this pattern of self-created successes and defenses. This pushy response does not normally create loving people, just people in control and in ever-deeper need for control. Eventually, the game is unsustainable, unless they make others, even their whole family, pay the price for their own aggression and self-assertion-which is the common pattern.”
BREATHING UNDER WATER: SPIRITUALITY AND THE TWELVE STEPS, RICHARD ROHR
I’m reading through Richard Rohr’s “Breathing Under Water.” I was just sitting down to a grain bowl for lunch after church and read this passage.
I would love to point out where I’ve seen this be true, but I’m not trying to be the kind of person who enjoys such efforts. Instead, I was more struck by the fact that the heroic spirituality pointed to in this paragraph is the very personality the church has tried to groom in me as a minister for years.
Be beyond reproach, be an attractive leader, dress handsomely, lose weight to attract more people, bring your kids to church, start a youth group, have lunch with the other ministers, do this, do that, and above all do everything while being humble yet confident.
I’ve bent over backwards thinking that I should be one way so many times. Maybe my back hurts from all of the spiritual contortions that I have put myself through time and time again.
Empty streets below skies
blotted by ashen hued puffs.
No voices carry on cold wind
As footsteps seem noisy intrusions...
This is a still place...
My soul breathes,
This is a still place...
Yesterday it rained a lot here. From morning until evening, the skies were filled with rain and the temperature was just a few degrees above freezing. The few walks that I took with my dogs and children were taken on streets drenched in rain. The streets were mainly empty, which is pretty normal in quarantine. The cold rain only made the walks chillier, the yards emptier, and the entire area’s mood more somber.
For the last few weeks of quarantine, I’ve been slowly reading through Richard Rohr’s “Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer.” I say that I’m reading it slowly because the price of Kindle books has taught me the wisdom of rationing books during this time of stillness. My personal budget for books has not grown even as the time to read them has increased…
The book is interesting. I do not always agree with Fr. Rohr’s writing, but thankfully my beliefs do not require me to agree with someone’s entire belief structure to glean wisdom where I find it. Let’s take this idea from Fr. Rohr which strikes me as particularly interesting on page 96:
If contemplation teaches us to see an enchanted world, cynicism is afraid there is nothing there. As a people, we have become cynical about ourselves, our world, our future. Some rightly said, “The problem is no longer to believe in God; it’s to believe in humanity.” We’re tremendously under-confident about what it means to be human. For many secular people today we live in a disenchanted universe without meaning, purpose, or direction. We are aware only of what it is not. Seldom do we enjoy what it is. Probably it is only healthy religion that is prepared to answer that question. Healthy religion is an enthusiasm about what is, not an anger about what isn’t.
Richard Rohr, page 96 of “Everything Belongs”
Yesterday, the world was empty, wet, cold, and windy. The weather outside was fairly to quite miserable. The news on the radio was not very warm and cuddly. I could have easily chosen to be angry about the world. I could choose to embrace anger, anxiety, fear, or despair.
Instead, I smoked a turkey that we froze in our freezer last fall. Earlier in the week I brined the turkey with a homemade brine. We thawed the turkey in a brine for five days. We brought the brine to a boil before cooling to room temperature prior to submerging the turkey. We smoked the turkey with cherry wood chips with brine in the water pan. With three hours left, we put potatoes underneath the turkey to smoke and to be flavored by any drippings falling from the turkey.
The day could have been thoroughly miserable, but there was opportunity to find joy even in the midst of a dark world. We cannot choose the world in which we live. We can choose how we try to approach the difficulties. Sometimes there are neurochemical challenges which require medical help, patterns of habits which are detrimental, or a propensity towards anxiety, depression, or fear; however, we still can make a choice.
Last night, we had smoked turkey with smashed smoked potatoes. The turkey was moist and flavorful, the potatoes were tasty, and the inevitable cranberry sauce was devoured. We have enough leftovers for the next few days today and turkey broth cooking in the slow cooker. Even these moments can be beautiful if we choose to find a reason for hope and joy. Perhaps you’re not a cook or have nobody to cook with, but this day is still the day we have for today. We can choose to be enthusiastic about what is rather than angry about what is not.
Brine Recipe: For every five pounds of turkey: 1 clementine sliced into wedges, 1 tsp prague powder #1, 1 tsp peppercorns, ¼ c brown sugar mixed into a brine made with enough water to submerge the turkey)
I recently was certified as a graduate of the Academy for Spiritual Formation #39. As a result, I can now read whatever books I would like to read! So, I went back to a book that one presenter Dr. Amy Oden wrote and found a book in her footnotes. As a result, the first fun book I am reading is “Broken Lights and Mended Lives: Theology and Common Life in the Early Church” by William Caferro. What is fun about studying church theology? I can spend two years in this book without being rushed… What a luxury!
Today, I started reading a book I chose to read! In the preface to Caferro’s book, I found the following statement: (preface, paragraph 3)
Of course, the different avenues that lead to early Christianity give us differing visions of what it was like. But they supply different views of the same thing. We cannot oppose, say, popular to official Christianity; instead, we must seek to use the two angles stereoptically to gain a deeper imagination of the early Church.
Ordinarily, I skim through the preface of a book; however, this statement caught my attention. Caferro is discussing a comment in Cult of the Saints by Peter Brown. According to Caferro, Brown suggests in his book that “more can be done by attempting to understand the cult of the saints from other points of view.” Caferro points out an inference that “no one approach is correct, but that there are many valid ways of gaining an understanding of the early church.” (ibid)
This quotation caught my attention because it holds a truth that seems worth noting in our day and age. The other day I was discussing the tension between dueling viewpoints in a post called “‘This is my song’ and John Chrysostom.” I noted that there was a tension between my love of the song and the lessons I am learning through studying early Church historical figures.
Caferro’s quotation is interesting because it provides room for thought. What if the tension reveals a deep truth? What if there is something to be learned about looking at the tension from different angles? What if we can lessen the tension through intentionally looking at the challenge stereoptically?
For many years I had a far more dominant eye because of a condition called keratoconus. One eye could see clearly so I learned to drive and function with what was effectively monocular sight. I had no depth perception because of effectively having one functional point of view.
When I received a corneal transplant, I was almost immediately thrown for a loop. After several years with one point of view I could suddenly see with both eyes. I had depth perception for the first time in years. The result was amazing. I had to take the time to learn to see with both eyes again. When I moved past that tendency to have monocular vision to having true binocular vision I could suddenly see the world in a deeper way.
What if we were to consider that many of the challenges we may face in church culture are fewer issues of diametrically opposed ideas and instead people viewing the same situation from different angles? What if instead of trying to conquer the opinions of others, we accept that they may see something differently? What if seeing together might give each person a new perspective with more depth and clarity?
None of these ideas are new ideas. These ideas are as old as time, but it is still good to remember good life lessons when we have the opportunity.
I write this blog post for posting a few days before the beginning of the special session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. I write this blog with a lot of questions in my mind. What will happen over the next few days? What effects will that gathering have on the church as a whole?
My questions about the future have been inspiring questions in my mind. What does it mean that we are a “United” Methodist Church? What does it mean that we have deep divisions in our unity? Have we missed something?
I recently started rereading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together.” I have been pondering the nature of Christian community, the life of someone who had to make incredibly hard decisions to remain as faithful as he could, and it is nice to read about the life of someone who is not United Methodist during these troubling days. Still, Bonhoeffer has always been troubling. I found the following quote calling out for contemplation:
“Therefore, let those who until now have had the privilege of living a Christian life together with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of their hearts. Let them thank God on their knees and realize: it is grace, nothing but grace, that we are still permitted to live in the community of Christians today.”
Bonhoeffer writes this quote in the midst of contemplating how rare it is for Christians to live in community. As Bonhoeffer points out, Jesus himself lived a life that involved isolation during many of the major events of his life. Jesus was alone even in the midst of the crowd for many events of what we call the “passion.” Bonhoeffer points out the lonely lives lived by many of the apostles, missionaries, and even individual Christians throughout the centuries.
Reading Bonhoeffer is always challenging, but these words were particularly biting in light of the upcoming events in the life of my denomination. Have we honestly thanked God that we have each other? Have we thanked God for the privilege of living in community with one another? Have we seen our living together as anything but a gift of unmerited favor?
Honestly, when I see some of the vitriol in the community of faith I share with other Christians I do not always see people thankful for grace. I have seen people stand there and say “You do not belong in the church” when they are only in the church by the grace of God. They have been given the blessing of belonging to a body of faith. They have been given a grace and it seems as if that grace is taken for granted.
How many Christians over the centuries longed for a place to belong with other Christians? How many of our churches exist because people came together to have a place to belong? Are we turning our back on that legacy of grace? Are we so thirsty for law, structure, and power that we would burn our community of grace to the ground if we do not get our own way?
It is far easier to tear down than to build something. It is far easier to destroy than to give life. As we head into General Conference, I am praying we remember that we are only together by the grace of God. I am praying that grace prevails.
Have you ever stopped to wonder whether life would be different if we paid closer attention to the world? Would life be different if we focused on other matters than those that preoccupy us?
Recently I was reading a letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his parents in April 1943. Eberhard Bethge translated the version I was reading. The letter I was reading was written on the fourteenth of April. Bonhoeffer wrote:
“Spring is really coming now. You will have plenty to do in the garden; I hope that Renate’s wedding preparations are going well. Here in the prison yard there is a thrush which sings beautifully in the morning, and now in the evening too. One is grateful for little things, and that is surely a gain.”
If you are unfamiliar with Bonhoeffer’s story, Bonhoeffer was arrested for taking very public stances against the Nazi regime in Germany and for engaging in espionage. He was executed for his crimes during the last days of hostilities in 1945. Bonhoeffer was one of the most prominent Lutheran martyrs of the 20th century.
Bonhoeffer is writing to his father at the beginning of his imprisonment in the letter I was reading. They had separated Bonhoeffer from family, from his fiancee, and from his community of faith within the confessional church. Bonhoeffer was facing charges which could easily lead to his execution.
What catches my eye is that Bonhoeffer notices the thrush in the prison yard. He could have obsessed over his imprisonment and isolation. He could have focused on being confined in his cell for long hours at night or being neglected simple things like shoelaces and shaving cream. In the midst of everything, Bonhoeffer notices the thrush.
I am not imprisoned in my home. I have access to the world around me and my children are a regular part of my life. There are so many things I could focus on in life. I could notice the sound of my daughter singing to herself, the blessing of having a partner who helps me to be a better person, or a million and one other things.
Instead I find myself focusing on matters that are not helpful. Do I have opinions about politics? Yes, I most certainly have opinions. Do I have an obligation to speak out against abuses? Yes, I most certainly have times when I must take a stand. There are many things I could focus on in this moment.
I pray that my calling in the world will come with the awareness that Bonhoeffer seemed to possess. Will I miss the thrush? I pray that I do not miss the thrush in my life today. May I gain blessings through all the little things.
Be still. As scents fill you, As odd sights confound you, And as you want to run away: Be still…
“Be Still” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019
I recently spent time with someone who was ill in a care facility. I wrote this post a while back to help preserve the person’s identity, but this post is not about their story. This post is about my story and my experience.
The situation on my end was that I was waiting in a care facility which is filled with people facing challenges. The staff was present and diligent, but it is a facility full of people with differing needs. I found myself waiting impatiently as the sounds, scents, and distractions which come in such a place filled my senses.
I ordinarily do not spend time waiting in such facilities. I enter, I head straight where I need to go, focus on the individual, visit with family, pray, and head out the door. I generally do not have time to sit, to think, or to read in such places. I do not have time for my mind to wander. This day was different, so I opened my Kindle to read as I waited.
The chapter is not a long chapter. Abbess Paintner referred to three quotations in that section. As much as I respect the Abbess’ selection of ancient sources, her wisdom shines forth in her annotations. She writes:
“Sitting in our cell requires patience to not run from ourselves or flee back into the world of distraction and numbness. It means being fully present to our inner life without anxiety. Interior peace comes through sitting in silence, through attentiveness and watchfulness.”
Abbess Paintner in the second footnote for chapter ten
I found myself reflecting on the concepts of patience and stillness as my senses picked up on less than pleasant smells. In that moment, the place I was called to spend my time was that room with everything in the air. My cell was a chair in the midst of this person’s life. I found myself trying to be attentive, watchful, and present even as some part of me tried not to breathe too deeply. The scents, the sights, and the sounds made me more than a little anxious.
I found myself struggling in those moments after reading the Abbess’ thoughts. Was I letting those scents keeping me from being present with the individual sleeping in the bed? Was I letting my dislike of the scents keep me from being present with someone whose every breath contains the aromas that were filling my nostrils? There was some part of me that struggled with shame for focusing on the distractions and another part that wondered if the distractions might not be the blessing in disguise.
I was filled with questions, but the one that stuck with me was the loudest question that filled my mind. Was I open to knowing this was someone’s experience? Was I open to walking with someone as their body struggled? Was I open to being God’s hands and feet in such a place? Was I willing to see God in that place?
It would be easy to numb myself to the situation. I could run to my car and refill my diffuser with peppermint. I could rush home, put on the aromatic earl gray tea to settle my senses, and I could rush home to hug my toddler who seems to always smell of lavender when you smell her hair. It would be easy to flee back to distraction and numbness, but would I find true peace in distraction?
I find myself casting my mind to Matthew 25. In Matthew 25, the Son of Man comes in glory to bring judgment to an imperfect world. The Son of Man separates folks and says to one group that they are blessed because they gave food to the hungry, drink to the thirst, welcome to the stranger, clothes to the naked, care to the sick, and visited the imprisoned. The people did not understand when they had done these things. The Son of Man replies (in the NRSV) “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
We who are engaged in helping care for others often look on this passage and find comfort. We have given a dollar at the Red Kettle at Christmas, have donated a can of food to the food pantry, and gave a little extra when we could. We have helped the least of these. I could rush home and say “I visited one of the least of these! I’m good!”
Would Christ ask “Did you really visit the least of these or did you do the least you could for these?” Are we open to realize we may be called to radical love that sits through the dirt of life? Are we open to realize that loving God’s children may mean sitting in smelly places? Are we open to realize that God may call us to a deeper fellowship with those in need than the bare minimum?
I do not write such challenging words from a place of judgment. If anything, I feel convicted by my own words. What does this look like in our lives? If we are to live into God’s kingdom, do we all need to live radically transformed lives? Perhaps we are not all called to a care facility, but perhaps we are all called somewhere beyond what is comfortable for us. It is worth contemplating.
Today’s post is out of sync for most folks. I serve as a minister and thus operate on a different schedule than most of my community. My community consists of a majority of people (but not all) who either work weekdays or live in a cycle where weekends are normal. We have a few individuals who work shifts on weekends, but most either work those weekday jobs or have other purposes in their life (e.g. stay at home parents, retirees, etc.)
As a minister, Monday morning is a time when I prepare for the week ahead. Often that means taking time for reflection. My “Spiritual Renewal Day” is Friday, which is unfortunate as it means my only regular companions for my Sabbath are pets and my toddler. Saturday is a day fraught with community events, denominational events, children’s events, and complications with worship preparations. This past Saturday I had to choose between a historical society coffeehouse, a district training day in the United Methodist Church, the upcoming week’s grocery shopping, worship prep, and my daughter’s birthday party. I chose my daughter’s birthday party, worship prep, and grocery shopping.
Monday is not my spiritual renewal day, but Monday morning is a time my spirit requires me to slow down. Part of that slowing down is reading for personal growth, for the Academy for Spiritual Formation, for an upcoming book or Bible studies, or for upcoming sermons (although on principle, I rarely read anything on the subject I am preaching on the upcoming Sunday).
Today I began by reading further into Rev. Wayne Muller’s book “Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives.” I find Mr. Muller’s writings to be interesting. From my reading, I have the feeling that we share a common attribute in introversion. I may be wrong, but I found his love of rest to speak to my introverted soul.
There are days when it seems as if Mr. Muller knows my heart. It feels like continual overcommitment leads to a violence against my soul (pg. 3). As a minister, I am often asked to be a voice or presence on nearly every committee, am expected (on my Methodist side) to hold each committee accountable to our common identity and purpose, to be present in the lives of the homebound and sick, to be available 24/7 for hospital calls, and am expected to lead in most forms of outreach.
The sense of needing to be everywhere for everyone is a common struggle among clergy. Many clergy struggle from burnout and many are accused of not being present enough when their families are falling apart, their relationships are crumbling, and facing loneliness. I have struggled with the constant pull of ministry on my life for years. I believe this common struggle is one reason Mr. Muller’s words struck so deeply with me today. In his chapter on “The Joy of Rest” Mr. Muller writes:
“The practice of Shabbat, or Sabbath, is designed specifically to restore us, a gift of time in which we allow the cares and concerns of the marketplace fall away. We set aside time to delight in being alive, to savor the gifts of creation, and to give thanks for the blessings we have missed in our necessary preoccupation with our work. Ancient texts suggest we light candles, sing songs, pray, tell stories, worship, eat, nap, and make love. It is a day of delight, a sanctuary in time. Within this sanctuary, we make ourselves available to the insights and blessings that arise only in the stillness of time.”
“Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives,” by Wayne Muller (pg. 26)
When was the last time you woke up with the goal of delighting in being alive? I have had days where I have woken up with the goal of worshipping, the plan to sing songs or tell stories, but it is rare that I have woken up with the goal of delight. As someone who has publicly faced the challenges of mental health over the years, waking up with the goal of delighting in my life seems particularly foreign to my mindset.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to set aside time to delight in being alive? Many Christians struggle to fight for conceptual ideas like sexual propriety, the lives of unborn children, and other idealistic strivings. Laying aside those questions, what would life be like if we were to put a tenth of the energy we see poured into those causes poured into delighting in life? What would life be like if we gathered for worship Sunday mornings and said we are here to delight in each other’s company? What if we delighted in each other’s company?
In my mind, I see a church filled with people going past “Hey. Good to see you!” or “Hi. How are you?… I’m good.” What would it look like if we delighted in each other? How would that change the way we see church? How would that change the way we see our mission?
A church that focused on treating the Sabbath how Mr. Muller describes Sabbath is the kind of church I would love to be a part of as an individual. A community focused on songs, worship, delight, prayer, stories, and even in bringing love into our homes… there is a wonderful vision!
“Hold the course both straight and true!” Winds buffet. We pitch and roll. “Everything will be fine!” The tiller snaps off…
“A Seaborne Dodoitsu” The Distracted Pastor, 2019
Paperwork for our Annual Meeting is completed. It is now time to focus on the next session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation, which takes place towards the middle of next month. One of the greatest challenges I have found in the Academy is taking a lot of superb material and authentically engaging. I have read too many books and have great things go in my eyes, bounce in my brain, and eject themselves at the first distraction. Long time readers of the blog have noticed that this blog is one place I try to engage the material.
In Fleming’s work, the section is entitled “Rules for perceiving and knowing in some manner the different movements which are caused in the soul” in the literal translation and “Guidelines for Discerning Different Movements, Suitable Especially for the First Week” in the contemporary translation. In all three translations, the conversation revolves around consolation and desolation.
Consolation, in my words, is when one’s spirit is aflame with the love of God in joy, drawn to the love of God is sorrow, or in any way grown in the faith, hope, and love that comes from God (and referenced in 1 Corinthians 13). Desolation is the opposite of consolation. Hence, it is when the soul’s love of God is smothered, the soul feels stripped away from the presence of God in sorrow, or circumstances arise in which faith, hope, and love are diminished in experience or (hopefully not) reality.
What drew my eye was the section referred to as Rule 5 and Rule 6, which can be found in sections 318 and 319 respectively. I think when we look at these rules, we find something that is a bit challenging. I will draw on Fleming’s contemporary translation for our discussion.
“5. When we find ourselves weighed down by a certain desolation, we should not try to change a previous decision or to come to a new decision. The reason is that in desolation the evil spirit is making an attempt to obstruct the good direction of our life or to change it, and so we would be thwarted from the gentle lead of God and what is more conducive to our own salvation. As a result, at a time of desolation, we hold fast to the decision which guided us during the time before the desolation came on us.
6. Although we should not try to make new decisions at a time of desolation, we should not just sit back and do nothing. We are meant to fight off whatever is making us less than we should be. And so we might try to intensify our prayer, we might take on some penance, or we might make a closer examination of ourselves and our faith.”
In many ways, I understand what Loyola is driving at in these rules. I also acknowledge that these rules have done a great deal for the church over the centuries. I also believe they have value going into the future. In many ways, I am an outsider commenting on something which does not come from my own denominational tradition and mean no offense to those who hold these rules and experiences dear.
I also see a challenge in these rules for the modern church. For many churches, the American attendance pattern of worship has led people to enter deep periods of doubt and desolation. We are faithful to what we once found fruitful. Certain hymns, certain ways of acting, and certain patterns of life consoled and blessed us.
Life has changed. We who are still in the pews can end up facing the desolation of the spirit that comes with lower attendance numbers, people skipping once integral Bible study, or even quitting the church altogether. It can be a heavy blanket on the soul to find empty seats that were once brimming. We can find these words in our desolation to be wise words of advice. We choose to keep at the decisions made during seasons of consolation! What is more, we double down on commitment! We may not have formal penance in the Protestant church, but we could order twice as many tracts, invite that neighbor twice as often, and intensify our prayer.
The dodoitsu I put at the beginning of this blog summarizes the situation quite nicely. The waves are crashing, the wind is howling, the tiller is snapping, and the response can be to stand there saying “Everything will be fine!” In moments of doubt, we might call out to Jesus like the disciples! “We will drown! Don’t you care?”
I raise these concerns because I believe one concept of the sixth rule is integral. Sometimes we need to make a closer examination of ourselves and our faith. We may need to ask questions like:
Was my faith grown by the hymns or the fact I was singing about my faith with others?
Did that memorial item in the sanctuary grow my faith or was it the person who inspired it? What would the original person have wanted? Would that line up with our purpose?
If relationships helped grow my faith, are there places I can help others grow in their relationships? What if those places look different today than five years ago?
Would changing something small make a big difference? Would that small change affect everything or just cause discomfort for a while?
Occasionally, when we take time to examine ourselves and faith, we find that the things that consoled us were something different than we remember. It can be helpful to remember that things are not always how they once seemed.
There are times when the call is to stick to what you planned in a time of consolation. If you struggle with alcohol, a bad day is not the time for the drink you swore off in better days. If you struggle with anger, perhaps this is the moment when you should go walk off your frustration instead of face the person who is aggravating you. Struggles do not mean you should change your plan.
Still Loyola pointed out that some difficulties exist not as desolations but as consolations. When things go wrong it can be a reminder of how blessed we are to have God in our corner despite our struggles. When the boat is pitching back and forth, it can be a good reminder of how grateful we are for flotation devices.
In my 22 years as a committed Christian after my “heart-warming” experience, I have learned that few experiences are black and white. Some situations seem dire but end up being blessings. Some blessings seem wonderful but lead to challenging situations. Discernment is never easy, but there is wisdom in these words from Loyola. I have learned the value of holding the tiller with a loose hand. I have also learned the value of steering through the storm.
Joyfully, I have recovered my writing laptop from the place where it was charging. Who would have guessed it was plugged in on my desk? The next thing you know, I’ll find my keys hanging on the key-holder by the door.
For today’s blog, I wanted to bring in an outside source from the kind of stuff I usually quote. I am a sincere believer that everyone needs to put their hair down occasionally. In fact, even the Desert Abbas and Ammas occasionally understood this idea. I adore the story of the hunter who comes across Abba Anthony and questions the good Abba about what he sees. The Abba and several other monks were enjoying themselves in the desert. The Abba challenges the hunters perception by asking him to repeatedly draw his bow and fire an arrow. In time the hunter protests. Overusing the bow will break it. Abba Anthony replies that the same is true of people. If you stretch them too much, they will break.
“A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.’ So he did. The old man then said, ‘Shoot another,’ and he did so. Then the old man said, ‘Shoot yet again,’ and the hunter replied ‘If I bend my bow so much I will break it.’ Then the old man said to him, ‘It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.’ When he heard these words the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened.”
In the story, there’s a society where everyone can have what they need. People are offered an allotment and should have enough to live off if they are careful with how they spend their resources. Unfortunately, even in science fiction people are often people. A few particular lines of the story stuck out:
“Money only ever fixes the troubles that money can fix. All the others stay on. Yes, yes, yes, we suffer less. We suffer differently. But we still suffer over smaller things, and it distracts us. We begin to forget how precious butter and bread are. How desperate we once were to have them. Spices that meant something deep to my mother or to me? In a generation they’ll only be tastes. They won’t mean anything more than their moment against the tongue. We should nourish our children not just with food, but with what food means. What it used to mean. We should cherish the moments of our poverty. Ghosts and bones are made to remind us to take joy in not being dead yet.”
Now, I underline my religious books on my Kindle regularly. I am 30% through this collection of short stories and this is the first highlight in the book. Let’s be clear that I enjoyed many of the stories. This quote from James Corey just leapt off the page at me in a special way.
I believe one reason it connected with me is my hobby of cooking. At this moment, I have am working on making a compound beef stock to enjoy throughout the cold months of winter. It has taken a lot of effort to make the beef stock. It would be far easier to just purchase a container of beef boullion from the grocery store, but there’s something deeper at stake for me.
I want my kids to have something true, something real, and something they can identify. I want my kids to recognize the taste of leeks and carrots in a stock. I want my kids to see how long it takes to cool and remove the fat from the top of the stock. I want them to understand why the food they eat at home tastes different from the stuff out of a can in the school cafeteria.
Truthfully, there are no bones left behind for the kids to see at the school. My kids see the bones the broth comes from in our house. When making chicken stock, they see the chicken paws come out from the freezer and into the pot. There was once something living and breathing that went into that soup. The vegetables they see cooked to oblivion to get nutrients and flavors into the stock? Those vegetables came from farms where farmers worked hard. In the summer, the kids often meet those farmers at the farmer’s market or at the coop where my kids see the chickens that produce their eggs.
I have a colleague named Grace Hackney who is big into the ministry of food through the ministry “Life Around the Table.” At the Academy for Spiritual Formation we have had several deep conversations on food and spirituality. We have various differences of opinions on small matters, but I agree with her assertion that the ways we feed our bodies affect how we feed our soul. Living out of a place of gratitude means not only giving thanks for what we have on the table but also being aware of how it came to the table. Proverbs 13:25-14:1 states:
“The righteous have enough to satisfy their appetite, but the belly of the wicked is empty. The wise woman builds her house, but the foolish tears it down with her own hands.”
Proverbs 13:25-14:1, NRSV
Proverbs is a book which is very black and white. There are righteous people who suffer want and there are wicked folks who have never gone hungry. As Jesus states in Matthew 5:45, the sun rises and the rain falls on people of all varieties. Still, there is wisdom to the saying “Don’t throw away the baby with the bath water.”
For me, stewardship means being able to trace back the foods I eat to the earth. If you hand me a chicken and vegetables, I can make broth. I don’t enjoy butchering chickens, but when pressed I can clean and cook a chicken. Grocery store vegetables are pretty, but if you hand me a bunch of malformed carrots, I can use them fine.
I am capable of these tasks, understand the effort they take, and thus do not throw useful things away without reason. In fact, I’m sure I drive my wife crazy with my obsession over leftover bones. I’m also certain she appreciates I can bring good food to the table for two or three days after roasting a chicken without driving up the grocery bill through the roof. I do so in part because there’s nothing more damaging to our budget than a grocery budget blown out of proportion or a trip out to dinner every night of the week. We have enough and some to spare in part because we do not let the foods we eat tear down the house in which we live.
We are trying to live out the wisdom of Proverbs 13:11 as a family: “Wealth hastily gotten will dwindle, but those who gather little by little with increase it.” There are days when the food on the table does not taste as good as the food at the restaurant, but there are moments when practice results in success. There are days when it is easier to just buy a kit from the store, but there are also moments when we turn the tide against the world insistent on telling our kids that any taste can come from a vending machine. Little by little we resist the drive to buy every shiny thing at the store. Bit by bit we regain what was once lost to us.
I have been thinking about the nature of the church. I hold to the belief that the church is not only the house of God, but a place for the wounded to find healing. For me, it is natural to find strange folks in a church.
If I had a broken arm, I would go see a doctor.
If I had a shoe with the sole falling off, I would go see a cobbler.
If I had a broken laundry machine, I would call a technician to come fix it.
If the power line running into my house were to collapse and spark in my yard, I would call the electric company.
Why are people surprised the church has injured people in her midst? Would you be shocked if you found hurting people in a hospital? Would you be thrown if you went to look at cars at a mechanic’s shop and every car there was broken?
Thankfully, Abba Elias has a good word here. “What can sin do when there’s penitence? And of what use is love where there is pride?” There’s wisdom on how we can see the life of the church.
What damage can sin do in the life of the faithful if they are penitent? There could still be damage done. Still, consider the following idea: A person might struggle with anger. If they are filled with that anger, what happens if they turn to God for help, and seek a way forward in a church community? Things might go wrong, but they’re also in a place where the community can support and help them. If they are truly penitent, what better place to be than in a community that understands sin and seeks to be free together? If they are not penitent, that’s another matter, but if they are truly trying to find a way forward, what better place to be?
On the other hand, what happens when we look at others who struggle, see imperfection, and then cut them off? What happens when we slam the door in their face? What happens if we see that person, decide they’re a hypocrite, and walk away? To put it another way, what happens when our pride blinds us to the reality that we all need healing? The church can pour out love all day long, but if you see love as a nasty dredged up swill, will you ever stop to drink that living water?
Luke 18:9-14 shares a parable about a tax collector and a Pharisee. In that parable, two men were praying in the temple. One was a despised tax collector who approached God with humility. He beat his breast with sorrow and asked God for mercy.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus in Luke 18:9-14, NRSV
The Pharisee was someone who considered himself superior to everyone around him, especially the tax collector. Jesus stood with the tax collector—humility was far more important than the self-decreed righteousness of the Pharisee.
Would it have helped the Pharisee to tell him he was loved? Of course he felt loved—he was the apple of God’s eye. Would it have helped to offer him a place of healing? He is no lowly tax collector! I think Abba Elias hit the nail on the head when he stated that sin can be overcome with penitence, but that pride can at least seem insurmountable by love.
Of course, Jesus did state that the Pharisee would one day be humbled. Was that humbling meant to bring the Pharisee to a place where he could find a place where penitence and love could find their way into the Pharisee’s life? I would imagine that Saul might tell us that there was indeed a way forward for the Pharisee. As Luke and Acts are two books connected by common authorship, one could see this parable as almost foreshadowing Saul’s experience. Of course, as my wise wife points out, that assumes the two books were meant to be read together instead of being meant as separate works. A later authorship of Acts might make this a happy coincidence instead of an intentional reference.
One of the first monastics of the desert, Anthony, is recorded as seeing the world through distraught eyes. To the left and right of the faithful there were traps and snares to ensnare. Behind and in front of the struggling there were further ways to entangle. Anthony cried out. What could possibly make a way through the challenges of life? Anthony believed humility alone could find a way.
“Abba Anthony said, ‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.” ‘ “
I know as a person that I am not perfect. Truthfully, I am grateful that I have enough wisdom to understand that my imperfection does not separate me from the love of God. I believe that love reaches out to everyone who walks through the doors of the church without exception. I pray we all find healing together.