“Here” and Life

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day Prompt for today is “here.”

This has been a really rough week for me. I have had more than one wise individual in my life point out that it was likely always going to end this way. One friend with a long history in the legal profession said “If you were the mother, things would probably be very different. Nobody wants to be the judge who gets a reputation for separating kids from their mothers.”

So, I have fewer rights and will see my kids less. The system is broken and there’s nothing I can do about it but pray. What’s my consolation today?

I weep, Jesus weeps, but we’ll laugh.
I feel impoverished, Jesus is sacrificing, but we’ll be rich.
I am empty, Jesus is emptying himself, and we’ll be full again.
I had to choose my religious profession or more visitation, Jesus faced persecution, but there’ll be blessing.

Also, those who laugh will mourn.
Those who feel rich will be impoverished.
Those who are full will be emptied.
Those who have everyone speak well of them will go the same way as the false prophets.

In the end, it is going to be okay. Justice is in the hands of a just God who sees what has happened. My attorney tried to lighten the mood by asking if lightning bolts or karma would strike first, but that’s far above my paygrade. Another friend later chimed in that karma may make me spend the rest of my days wondering if God answers prayers, but it isn’t really about that kind of thinking for me either.

Maybe they’ll repent someday? Maybe they’ll seek forgiveness and make amends for their sins? I have no idea, but their sins are in the hands of God, not mine. I don’t need to be vengeful as God is still God. I don’t need to threaten anyone with wrath, because the wrath of the New Testament falls on people who choose to bring it into their lives. What comes out of the lips comes from the heart, regardless of whether those are words of blessings or empty accusations. In the meantime, I’ve texted my kids that I love them and now am choosing a picture.

When everything was in the hole Tuesday after a sleepless Monday night, I knew where I could go to find solace, peace, and safety. I went to church. Sometimes I go and meet with my lawyer on Grand Island, and I pull into my home church’s parking lot to just be near the place where so many holy things took place over the years. On Tuesday, I went to the church to work. As I worked, I was drawn into a world bigger than myself. By the time we had Council, we were having discussions about how the church was a blessing to us and how we can share that blessing with others. Being at the church transformed my day, my attitude, and my hope. The church truly is a a place where we can just be “here.”

“Found” and being loved

There’s a line that stuck out in our devotional reading today. The line says, “When we look in the mirror this week, we can say ‘Jesus loved me enough to set me free.’ “

Those words are powerful words to share in the life of anyone going through a difficult time. When I wrote those words over two years ago, I do not think I could have ever imagined how heavily they would land this week. I really needed to hear the simple truth that I am more than simply loved. I am loved so much that Jesus sets me free.

What a powerful proclamation to hear as people who can sometimes feel empty, hungry, impoverished, or reviled! What a powerful word of great love and joy.

The #rethinkchurch Lenten Photo-A-Day word for today is “found.” What picture fits with this concept today? This beloved person needs to be “found” today. Come, Holy Spirit! Refresh and renew this person who needs to know they are more than simply loved. He was worth God’s saving work.

A Court Prayer

Why seek victory?
Peace and love; all I desire.
I love my children.
Their mother also loves them.
We both love and we both long.

They live life halfway
without ever wanting this
chaos and discord.
They need their roots to sink in
and give them a peaceful life.

Where do we go now
when all is in the wild winds?
Tumbling through this life
as we wait to know what’s next
and each pray for an answer.

I don’t know it all.
YaH, You know what should come next
and I will listen,
even if I hear through tears.
Please watch over my children:
they matter more than I do.

“Celebrate” and a Flower for Palm Sunday

The #rethinkchurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “Celebrate.” Today is Palm Sunday and there is celebration all around. Churches will sing the word “Hosanna!” Choirs will harmonize, bells will ring, and children will wave palm branches with the elder saints of the church.

To connect celebration with the events of today, I went through some of my favorite flower pictures to find a flower that was lovely enough for the Savior who enters Jerusalem. I came across this beautiful day lily in my favorite color.

I don’t own a cloak and I am not particularly fond of palm branches. I must confess that I cannot fold one of those crosses to save my life. I am grateful for palm branches as a symbol and would toss my cloak before Jesus if I had one. Instead, I present this picture of a flower.

Come, Lord Jesus. Save your people.

“Silent,”Peace, and Holy Week

The #rethinkchurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “silent.”

In our devotional today we are reading through a section of Matthew 10. Matthew 10:24-25 says:in the NRSV “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master

Throughout the gospels, the story of Christ is one where Jesus seeks out time alone with God. Jesus spends time with God in prayer. In my own experience, I have always equated those times to moments of silence. Although it does not say so, I cannot imagine the disciples falling asleep if their prayer was some form of prayer in motion.

There are times when we are called to intensive prayer. For me, that often means being in a place where I can still my mind and my thoughts. To be clearly honest, there are times that my mind has been absolutely still and clear in the midst of a tumultuous location like in a crowd. There have also been times when I have been in peaceful spaces without an ounce of peace in my soul. Silence and stillness are not always the same as being in a place of peace and stillness.

What is important to me as we approach Holy Week is finding a place where I can find peace and stillness. Forget what the world says stillness and peace should look like as we approach holy week and the cross; we need the peace that enables us to follow. Whether that peace is found in a loud crowd or a silent setting, the peace we need is far more important than the appearance of peace. The silence inside is far more important than the sound levels outside..

“Peace” and the Lake

The #rethinkchurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “Peace.” In our devotional we encounter the moment where Jesus comes across a man who has been inundated with a swarm of demons that self-identifies as “Legion.” What a contrast we have with the idea of peace on one side and the idea of a forceful and tumultuous bunch on the other side.

I connect these two ideas in my mind with this picture of one of my favorite places on the nearby Interloken trail. Last fall, as sunset approached, I found myself walking home past this lake just as the sun began to go down over the lake. The view of the trees was absolutely gorgeous.

There were no hills filled with swine, but there was cattle mooing in the distance. There were neither graves nor frustrated demoniacs to break the silence. It was peaceful beyond belief.

One reason the man purportedly possessed by Legion was found in a cemetery was the belief that the devil and demons tended to frequent such places. The edge of settled lands, graveyards, and other places were considered havens for the demonic and the disgruntled. A lonely lake, miles from the nearest city and in a place that would be frankly far less accessible without modern roads and even manicured trails would be the exact kind of wilderness space where something as questionable might have been found in Jesus’ day. The wooded wilderness is where the wild things were thought to live.

Thankfully, I do not live back in Jesus’ day. I do not need to live in fear of what lives in the wilderness near that lake. I normally have a walking stick and a dog which likely scares away anything that is in the slightest bit frightening, mostly because they see a relative of a wolf and not the relative of a couch potato that I sometimes see.

I also know that the scarier things that once would fall squarely under the realm of demonic forces have begun to be understood and blessed through the God given giftedness of biologists, physicians, and doctors across the years from Jesus’ day through today. There can be hope in the wild spaces within because of both God’s blessing and the rigorous efforts of scholars over the years with wisdom, intelligence, and insight.

I look forward to getting to my favorite place again soon. It is not as wild as it once was, but still has a peace that echoes within my soul. May God bless us all with such places.

“Blessed” and Spending Time

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.

“Needs” and a Happy Sight

The #rethinkchurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “Needs.” To be honest, there is absolutely no appropriate way that I can find to connect the word needs with both any photo in my collection and the theme of the devotional today.

In the devotional, the story we read today about Jesus’ life comes from John 9:1-40. In that story, Jesus brings sight into the life of a man who was born blind. To be entirely honest with you, I’ve never taken a photo of a blind person. The closest thing I have come to taking a photo of a blind person are the self-portraits I took when I had a corneal transplant a few years ago. My sight had grown so poor due to keratoconus that I was seeing quadruple at times in m one eye.

Nobody asked me the insanely pointed questions which were raised about the blind man in John 9. Nobody asked if I had keratoconus because my father or mother sinned. Nobody asked if my vision was hurt because of some great transgression. We don’t know everything about keratoconus, but it is likely that the latest medical journals do not point to divine punishment as a reason for a wacky cornea.

Instead, I chose a different picture for today. I chose a picture of a coffee pot brewing coffee on a camping trip two years ago. Why? Is it because I need coffee? Actually no, I was drinking tea at the time. Yes, there have been points in my life when I had foregone coffee for tea. Was it because everyone sometimes feels like they “need” a cup of something hot to start the day?

No, I shared this picture because it beautifully caught the flames, showed a moment of joy, and reminded me of a really happy sight in my past. Why was it a happy sight? It was a happy sight because someone donated a cornea and I can now see far better than seeing four images in one eye, and one image in the other.

Perhaps that’s the closest I will get to connecting this photo with the story of a blind person in need of compassion. While my story is not nearly as beautiful as the one in John 9, I have been in a place where I have been truly grateful to see. Sometimes the coffee pot is the most beautiful thing in front of us for a reason besides what it promises us. Sometimes it is just beautiful to see and have gratitude for sight.

“Bring” and Blessing Bags

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.

“Sent” and Barbed Wire

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “sent.” As we go through the week during the last week before Holy Week, our theme is to go Christ’s way instead of our ways. Jesus taught many things during his life and during Holy Week we will see how far Christ’s way is from our way.

On May 7th, 2014 I was standing in Northern Ireland and looking at a barbed wire fence. If you have never looked at a barbed wire fence up close, it is truly horrifying. I have spent a lot of time in my adult life trying to “kid proof” houses, churches, and even cars. I have gone out of my way to make certain that my child or another person’s child is not hurt when in a place where I have had a chance to make the space safer.

A barbed wire fence is designed with the opposite sentiment in mind. I don’t like walking through brambles because thorns hurt. The razor wire on these fences could easily hurt anyone who is reckless enough to get close. They look deadly, are deadly, and are not something you put up lightly. Seeing barbed wire on a church fence is seemingly antithetical to the gospel, but by local law the Methodist church I stood outside of in 2014 had a barbed wire fence cutting itself off from the community. What’s almost worse is that we were there on a trip to help repair the church that had been damaged by hurt people living in a hurt world where the barbed wire constantly reminded them of how they were the “enemy” of their neighbors.

I wanted to share the image of the murals below the barbed wire at the church. Why? Well, the people of that community had been sent by God to build a church in that space. The barbed wire came and it cut off the Methodist church from the protestant community and the parsonage which were on the other side of the barbed wire. Why? The church refused to have barbed wire between them and their catholic neighbors. What’s more, after the church was closed, the church building became a community center with the goal of building peace and the church rented the parsonage on the protestant side of the wall to Catholic nuns. They couldn’t help where they were sent, but they weren’t going to let it get in the way of following where Christ led them. That Methodist Church on the Springfield Road chose Christ’s way. I salute them for their bravery and hope to be half as faithful in my life.

“Celebrate” and Sandwiches

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “celebrate!” If you have been paying attention throughout the season, then you remember that Sunday is a day for celebration. In theological terms, we celebrate what Christ has done on Easter every Sunday throughout the year, including during Lent. Sundays are a day of celebration, which is why many Christian churches set aside Sunday as a day of worship.

It is sometimes strange to think that for most of the history of the Abrahamic religions, Saturday was the day when the Sabbath was celebrated. Blue laws, community events, and even a five day work week have collaborated to create the cultural phenomenon where the affluent take off both Saturday and Sunday for the weekend, but for much of history, it was a good life if you had the time and wealth to set aside for one day of rest a week.

One of the very few silver linings to going through separation from my spouse has been a new understanding of the importance of Sabbath. When my kids are in town, I do my very best to handle every obstacle and requirement on my time in the days leading up to my time with them so that I can truly spend time with them. As they always visit on a workday, it is not easy, but I often work through one of my days of rest in order to have the spare time to spend with my kids. I am fortunate enough to have enough flexibility to generally be able to reschedule things.

So, what do I do when they are here? What am I saving up my time to do? During the last visit, we had an amazing lunch with hand breaded and made airfryer crispy chicken sandwiches with homemade fries, carrot slaw, and apples. For the first time in months I took a picture of my kids where I caught them chewing? Why? So I could remember how much they enjoyed the food I spent days planning out while making phone calls, refining sermons early, and getting ready for the invasion.

What would it look like if we approached worship with such enthusiasm? I’m not a “church hat” person and I am likely downplaying the social aspect and competitiveness of it, but there’s something we may have lost over the years. Can you imagine taking the time to get your hat right for worship? Can you imagine taking the time to get ready to see friends and family in church again?

There’s only one thing worse than all the hubbub that goes with cleaning dishes, sweeping floors, and putting away the stuff after a celebration. What? Not having anyone to celebrate with in the first place.

“Always” and the Sunshine

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “always.” Today’s scripture reference in our devotional contains one of the typos I missed in the proofreading process. The chapter is Luke 6, not Luke 7.That reading in our devotional includes some painful words from Luke 6:27-28 “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

Always? Really? When someone cuts me off in traffic I can bless them once I cool off, but do I have to bless the people who are continually cursing me? I can let go of someone being abusive once, but do I really have to pray for someone who was systematically abusive?

If you read these words straightforwardly, the answer is “yes.” If you squint at them and look at them carefully, you could probably find a loophole, but I have to be honest: I don’t want to be a part of that kind of Biblical scholarship. These words are straightforward and meaningful as written. Yes, I do believe we are called to prayer even when the person in front of us is truly wicked and cruel.

For an image today, I decided to share a picture of the sun through the clouds. In the depths of winter, it was freezing cold and cloudy. The sun still shined through the clouds. The wind was bitter and the temperatures were low, but the sun still shined. The sun is always rising, whether it is an easy day or a hard day.

It is not easy to pray for people that are mean, cruel, or abusive. It is still possible. I will note that Jesus says that we should pray for these people, do good to them, and bless them. Jesus does not invite us to subjugate ourselves to the will of the cruel. I believe that you cannot truly do good to someone if you always have your neck on the floor. You cannot pray for people if your voice is always silenced. It isn’t in the text here, but I truly believe that there’s a difference between turning the other cheek and consistently walking into a slap.

“Keep” and the Toy Blocks

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “gullible.” Actually, on the first of April the word for today is “keep.”

In my house there is a set of wooden blocks that all of my children have played with over the years. During a recent visit, the blocks were pulled out and I had a chance to play with my youngest. At one point she asked if her castle was beautiful. I told her that it was an amazing castle.

The bricks are not fancy bricks. As you can see, they’ve been written on, worn down, and in some places have started to chip and splinter away. While we have always made sure they are safe, they’re simple blocks. They don’t make sounds, they don’t scream out in bright colors, and they are extremely simple. They also have been the favorite toys of all of my children at one point or another, probably because I can’t help but play alongside them.

In the devotional today, we read the story of a man with a withered hand being healed by Jesus in Luke 6:6-11. Here was a man whose hand was wounded, whose wellbeing was considered less important than the Sabbath rules, and who was used as bait to trap Jesus. In other words, he was only useful in this moment as a tool rather than as a person.

Jesus loved the man and brought healing into his life. Where other people might see woundedness and assume it was a punishment from God, Jesus saw a person in pain. Where others were happily using the opportunity to find dirt on Jesus, Jesus saw a chance to do something wonderful for a man in pain. If this man was a toy, it would have been a pretty sad toy. Jesus restored rather than rejected. Jesus loved the man despite the consequences.

Jesus loved this man and healed him. In my life, I sometimes feel like the old bricks that might be ready for retirement. It is easy to dismiss your needs and value as unimportant or insignificant. We really should think twice before we try to throw our own self-worth out with the bath water. Jesus loves us even if we only see the worn edges or the lack of bells and whistles. Jesus loves us dearly as the people we are right now.

“Cared” and Tiny Flowers

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “cared.” In thinking about an image that showed care, I immediately thought of the lovely little flowers growing on top of my aquaponic fish tank.

Perhaps you are thinking that this is a strange choice with the prompt “cared.” Well, there’s a story here that has to do with the fact that there have been few flowers in my life over the years.

One of my shortcomings as a husband over the years was my inability to remember to bring home flowers for my wife. I did my best to remember, promised to get better, and worked diligently at trying to wrap my head around the fact that it mattered to my spouse. A few months into separation I was setting up the top of my fish tank to grow herbs and was trying to decide what I should grow.

I had talked with a few people over the previous months about how I felt abandoned, lonely, and really hurt by the ways that everything has happened. It took a lot to move past sitting in sorrow when not working and losing myself in my work as often as possible. My first move was to start walking, taking pictures, and forcing myself to look through a camera lens to look at something outside of myself. There was a ton of guilt, grief, self-accusation, and woundedness that had to be acknowledged and grown through before I got to the point where I was not only willing to think of doing anything joyful beyond the bare necessities of living, much less doing something new like growing plants with my fish.

As strange as it sounds, I had to accept that I had worth before I could do more than work, engage in spiritual practices that I had previously learned, and do the minimum to survive. In time, around January after the healing story of Christmas began to take root in my soul, I had begun to move beyond looking at everything I had done wrong to acknowledging a simple fact: I had wanted flowers too. I like flowers. I enjoy the look of them, taking pictures of them, trying to grow them, celebrating their little successes, and generally being around them which makes my allergies a real pain sometimes.

While looking at the seeds at the local Agway for seeds in the middle of winter, I acknowledged that nobody had bought me flowers and nobody would buy me flowers. I acknowledged the pain of being criticized for not bringing home enough flowers when the last flower I had received from my spouse was a flower to match my wife’s bouquet on our wedding day: one flower for me, a whole bouquet for her.

I wanted flowers, so I bought flower seeds, and now there are little purple flowers bringing joy to my home. Nobody has to buy me flowers and I never asked my spouse for flowers, but now that I am on my own, there is nothing wrong with growing flowers to bring joy into my life and into my home. I now not only have those flowers, I have the joy of seeing my children enjoy the flowers whenever they visit home to be with their father. Cue the cute four year old saying, “Look Dad! There’s another flower!”

In the section of the beatitudes that we are focusing on this week, there’s a lot of weight behind the words. Luke 6 does an excellent job of saying that we should neither expect praise for following Christ nor expect that everything is going right when we receive all of the praise and accolades. In the end, my flowers have little to do with my journey with Christ other than to acknowledge that God created a good creation in me.

Will I receive blessings from God if someone thinks a man shouldn’t grow flowers or want someone to give him flowers? I somehow doubt it. I do know that my value and my worth as a person does not depend on whether I fit the typical norms of my childhood. I have lavender aftershave and deodorant; God loves me despite the fact that some might question the scent that wafts about me. I like taking pictures of flowers and enjoying the beauty of these lovely plants that I cannot grow for the life of me; God loves me despite the fact that I take pictures of other people’s flowers because I need a hydroponic/aquaponic system to grow anything more complicated than a spider plant.

I don’t believe I will receive special blessings from God after being persecuted if someone picks on me for my liking flowers. I do believe that God cares about me and will bless me through the situation anyway because of God. I don’t believe every criticism I ever receive falls under this beatitude, but I do believe that God cares about me deeply and will bless me with love (at the very least) when I accept and honor the good things God has placed in my heart.

In other words, when I actually do manage to grow flowers, I see them as a gift from God. I may never receive flowers from a spouse, but I happily receive them from God.

Thank you God! They’re lovely. I really appreciate it.

“Anointed” and Hyssop

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “anointed.” In considering a photo to share, I will admit to having to dig into my photos for a while until I found something fitting.

Last summer I took this picture of a hyssop plant at the Cutler Botanical Garden outside of Binghamton. Hyssop was used for a lot of religious purposes and Psalm 51:7 says in the NRSV: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” I personally would have preferred the verse be translated “cleaner” than snow, but generations of faithful people have connected the hyssop plant with religious cleansing

The hyssop plant was connected to the story of Exodus as hyssop branches were used to anoint the doorways of the children of Israel before the first passover. In Exodus 12, the hyssop plant was forever tied to at least one act of anointing.

Still, how do I tie this to our theme for the week? The hyssop plant has become connected with religious life for a long time. The role of hyssop in both religious and herbal realms led to the propagation and widespread popularity of this herb. To be hyssop is to be connected with both medicinal and religious purposes.

As believers in Christ, we are tied to the life of Christ. We are no less tied to the story of Christ than hyssop was tied to the story of God’s people. Why should we be surprised when we face challenges as a result of our faith? If they treated Christ poorly, why do we expect less?

I still don’t know about leaping for joy, but when I consider my life as a Christian, I understand that it will include challenges as well as blessings. Like cat grass draws felines and maple trees draw people who like syrup, being a hyssop means having a place in the hierarchy of life. Being a Christian comes with various challenges and difficulties. I don’t know if I am being clear, but I think we should at least understand that difficulties come with being followers of a Jesus who faced challenges.

“Served” and the Pies

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt os “served” today and our devotional talks about serving God instead of serving another master. In the devotional, I shared a bit of my experience working in a store while earning commission.

In considering what to share today, I tried to think of something the opposite of working and selling for your own gain. As strange as it sounds, I thought of the pies that our church sells at the pie sale. I have never run the numbers on the cost of ingredients, but I would guess that the cost of the pies is significant, the labor put into each is costly, and the price we charge is likely a bargain for a homemade pie.

Still, people make pies for the pie sale. Why? They make the pies to serve others and help their community. What a wonderful gift to share with the world around the church! Something sweet offered up to help support the church. The pie makers exemplify what it is to serve rather than be served.

“Raised” and the Beatitudes

It is a Monday during Lent, so our devotional has us looking at the beatitudes again! The Lenten Photo-A-Day challenge has us considering the prompt “raised.”

We are in for a blessing with the beatitudes when we consider the words “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”

While the easiest photo selection would be of Jesus, I wanted to go deeper into my photo library. As yesterday saw what was hopefully some of the last fluffy white flakes that will fall from the sky, I decided to present a photo from a walk I took at the beginning of the year.

I love this photo. There was a piece of driftwood rising up from the icy shoreline and it almost looked like fingers reaching for the sky. In the depths of the ice and snow, this branch reached for the heavens despite being cut off from the roots that once gave it life. I saw defiance in this wooden hand reaching for the sky.

In truth, being faithful to the gospel often means that we will come across those who neither understand nor care to understand us. On occasion, those individuals are within the church itself, but on other occasions that are outside the church family. There are moments that following Jesus may lead you to have to make ethical choices that make life more difficult, personal choices that change the outcome of situations, and can lead to real challenges that can cause lasting difficulties.

In those moments, we are given the promise of blessing. If we stick to our principles, love our neighbor, love our God, and hold fast, then we can put our hope in these words from Jesus. It may feel as if we’re a wooden hand grasping air with nothing beneath us at times, but we are firmly in the hands of God. May we live with such trust this week.

“Celebrate” and the BBQ Flower

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is the word “celebrate.” Every Sunday throughout Lent is a “mini-Easter” where we celebrate the fact that the journey ends in celebration. As I think about my Lenten practices, one practice that I have been following throughout this Lenten season has been avoiding meat on Wednesdays and Fridays.

My photo about celebration this Sunday is a photo that I took at one of the church BBQ sales last year. If you are around town on the Saturday after Mother’s Day, we will be having our Spring BBQ. My mouth is watering while thinking about it.

There is something ludicrous and celebratory about this image. It clearly is staged. No flowers grew on the edge of the bbq pit. If they had, the wonderful way our trustees light the pit would have quickly turned the flower into a more charred version of itself. The photo was completely staged, but it was absolutely amusing to take. I still laugh whenever I see it in my pictures.

Why? Sometimes life is just funny. The flower came from the nearby garden outside the church and was going to go to waste. The people who were weeding the garden during the BBQ brought the flower over and I had my fun with the flower. I’m fairly certain that the flower has graced a church bulletin cover, definitely went out on our eNews, and this flower likely received more attention due to the ten seconds when I took this picture than it did for weeks while sitting out in the sun.

I know the flower is a flower, but I hope that the flower felt some form of flowery happiness both in life and in being remembered as a source of life, laughter, and joy. I am so grateful that there will be a flower garden again this spring. I hope that the flowers are just as lovely. I also cannot wait to celebrate with the community over a great spring BBQ.

“Compassion” and the Eagle

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is the word “compassion.” We are reading the scripture that is at the heart of tomorrow’s sermon, so I will avoid diving into the devotional today.

What does it mean to be compassionate, especially in light of Jesus’ teachings on weeping? Blessed are those who weep, for they will laugh! Laughter? I rarely think of laughter and compassion in the same sentence. As we have touched on a few times this week, laughter can often be at someone rather than with some. Such laughter is not very compassionate.

Compassion may have a lot to do with the comfort found in Matthew’s presentation of the beatitudes. It can be compassionate to show loving comfort to someone who you might consider your enemy if it were not for the fact that they are down on their luck. I think it is fair to say that it is compassionate to comfort people who are simply down on their luck or in a place of tears rather than living in a place of laughter.

I chose a picture of an eagle that I took at the Buffalo zoo last year. The eagle really does have a beautiful visage, but this eagle will likely never fly free. The eagle lives behind a fence where it can see tasty morsels flit by on smaller wings. Given the eyesight of the eagle, it probably sees the squirrels in the nearby park or the mice that might feast near the trash cans despite the best efforts of the staff.

Many people might think I am trying to make a point about zoos here. I’m actually not, although you can draw your own conclusions. Most of us have someplace in our lives where we feel trapped by life circumstances or life challenges. The fence is right there and it is okay to wish for something more. I know that I wish for something more on a regular basis.

I believe that God sees our sorrow and that’s one reason why Jesus went beyond offering comfort in Luke’s version of the beatitudes. Jesus makes a promise that laughter is on the way, because God sees our tears, knows our fears, and God is on the way.

“Enough” and the Lonely Leaf

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is the word “enough.” In our devotional, I once wrote the words “Perhaps one might think of the cliche that it is better to laugh than cry.” In the story we read, grieving parents laugh as Jesus tells them that their dead child is merely sleeping. To be very clear, they laugh at Jesus instead of with Jesus.

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.

“Filled” and Lonely Mugs

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is the word “filled.” When I consider all of the things that I might choose for the word filled, I lean towards my coffee cup.

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.

“Need” and the autumnal Bee

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt is “need.” I want to make the joke that I need to make a post that is less personal today, but modeling healthy vulnerability is one of the reasons that I am choosing to blog publicly throughout Lent on what is ordinarily a private practice.

I find that this model of showing healthy vulnerability is something modeled by Jesus. Nearly 2,000 years later, we know that Jesus wept. In our devotional today, we read the story of Jesus weeping outside of Lazarus’ tomb. In the devotional I wrote in 2020: “When Jesus teaches about weeping, Jesus does not teach as someone who wishes to share about something theoretical. Jesus teaches out of experience. Jesus was fully human. Jesus experienced sadness, pain, and sorrow in his life.”

Jesus modeled experiencing sadness, pain, and sorrow throughout the history of the church through the scriptures. While it is possible to overlook the humanity of Christ when we consider the miraculous occurrences throughout his ministry, stories like Jesus weeping show that Jesus truly felt sorrow.

So, what does it mean to “need” in light of Jesus’ modeling of sorrow? For me, there is a deep and earnest need to know that Jesus understands my tears as they roll down my cheeks. There is a deep reassurance found in the way that Jesus not only felt sorrow but expressed sorrow. Jesus was no robot without human emotions. Jesus had tears and sorrows just as we have tears and sorrows.

For me, a picture that grasps this is this picture of a bee drinking nectar last fall. It was late in the season. The leaves were changing colors and I was surprised to see this bee hard at work. Bees can be a bit frightening, but I have to admit I felt a deep connection to the bee. I was drawn to experience the same flowers, although in a radically different way. I was drawn to embrace the appearance of blossoms before the cold of fall drove them from sight. I could respect that this bee had a need. I also feel needs in my life.