Ramen Reflections

Ramen noodles soak
Mushrooms and veggies draw in
more than flavored broth:
they draw in hope for today
and give strength for tomorrow.

This morning started off well: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a tall glass of water before biking down to the church. The wonderful thing about biking to work is that you get to save gas money and help to care for the planet. Hours later, the crew leaves the church from the spring cleanup day. I head into my office and begin to work on cards thanking people for their service to the church today and for their service in helping to cleanup at Casowasco last Saturday.

After everyone has come and gone, the time for lunch draws near. I put a package of ramen, four dehydrated mushrooms, and a quarter cup of dehydrated veggies underneath the coffee maker’s spout. Twenty minutes later, I have Keurig Ramen, a common meal these days.

It isn’t the church’s fault that I’m not eating steak today. While I’d love to blame my former partner, it is not completely her fault either. It certainly is not the fault of the three blessings that I love with all of my heart and soul. We live in a broken world and after I am done voluntarily supporting my children who live across the state against my desires, I honestly have less in my bank account than I had when I served a church in seminary. I definitely did not see this place on my journey coming: I would have spent more time learning to cook better foods for fewer people for less.

For lunch today, my ramen looks back at me. I wrote a tanka about the ramen as I contemplated my lunch. I still wonder, what does the ramen see?

I hope it sees someone who is grateful for a good meal. I hope it sees someone who is grateful for what he has been given instead of someone who spends all of his time lamenting what is not right here. Actually, let me reword that: “I hope it sees someone who is working to be more grateful for what he has been given and to be less focused on what is lacking.” The intention is important, for I know I have a role in choosing how I react to these moments.

We don’t always get to choose what comes our way in this life. When we slow down and listen to the Spirit, we can be given a choice about how we react. I choose to react to these moments with hope.

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.

“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..

“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.

“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.

“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.

“With” and tears

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-a-Day prompt for today is “with.” I decided when entering into this season that I would be honest when this week of the study came around. We are in the beatitudes and the phrase of the week is “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” I know tears far too well as I walk a new road for me: separation and divorce.

My photo for today is of a moment when I shared some time with my four year old with my dog. My dog and I are both pretty lonely some days. Lily the Dog had a brother until late last year when his suffering became too much. She’s really struggled with both loneliness when the kids are not here and being overwhelmed by them at times when they are here. Hey dog, I resemble that feeling!

My four year old is oblivious. She just sees her dog and goes in for all of the hugs and snuggles. I laughed as I took this picture. I write this entry with tears threatening the edges of my eyes.

Oh friends, if life is uncomplicated and beautiful, do not take it for granted. Enjoy the moment. Some of us wait to be blessed. I will disagree with one part of what Jesus says in this passage. I don’t wish tears on anyone. Before you ask, yes, that intentionally includes my estranged wife: May God bless and keep her well.

“Celebrate” and the Encouraging Pumpkin

Today is Sunday, and that means that the #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt of the day is “Celebrate.” One of my favorite Sunday pictures of 2021 came out of the fall. There was a simple display setup upon the piano in the sanctuary. Two pumpkins invited us to be grateful.

Church is a great place to be grateful. Between the season of Advent and Pentecost, I ordinarily lead the “Prayers of the People.” Between Pentecost and Christ the King Sunday, I generally invite laity to lead the prayers whenever possible. Why? Prayer is not something you need ordination to perform in worship. Prayer is the work of all people and I like it when there is a concrete example of that prayer in the front of the sanctuary.

Unfortunately, in the world in which we live where people are often facing difficult situations that take months to resolve and gratitudes are often mentioned only once, there can be a tendency for the number of concerns to outweigh the joys in number. Unfortunately, when the challenges outnumber the joys, it can become challenging to keep a positive attitude.

I love this picture because church is a great place to be grateful. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we each took the time on a Sunday morning to stop and tell God what we are grateful for at that moment? I almost wish that little pumpkin were encouraging me every week.

“Looking” and being alone

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is the word “looking.” What does it mean to truly look? What does it mean to truly see the world around us?

The passage from our devotional today is Mark 10:23-31. In that passage, Christ reassures the people who are following him by saying in verses 29-30::“Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”

The picture I chose today is at the end of a long hike down a gorge in a local state park. I walked down the path with my camera in order to see the waterfall at the end of the journey. To be honest, it was quite a hike for me at that moment, but likely would not have been an issue a few months later.

My kids weren’t there to walk the path with me. My kids were with their mother in Buffalo. Rather than mope, I got up, put on shoes, and went to see this waterfall. The hike was amazing and the time in the wilderness was wonderful, but I still wish that my kids had been with me.

It is difficult to be without the people you love. The earliest disciples asked Jesus what would happen and Jesus reassured them that all would be well. They had left families, friends, and ways of living behind to follow Jesus. What good would a fisherman be without a boat? Jesus’ disciples left empty boats and had made a commitment. What would happen to them? What would happen to a tax collector with no place to collect taxes? Many disciples left things behind.

Jesus reassured his followers that all would be well. I pray that such promises come true in the lives of all who bring their loneliness to Christ.

“Planted” and Aquaponic Fish

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is the word “planted.” Of course, I couldn’t just be normal, so I decided to use one of my favorite pictures from my “aquaponic” fish tank. Who wouldn’t want to be planted in water?

Nibbling fish

To be entirely honest, the picture is quite fitting for the theme of the week. We have been pondering “hunger” and “fullness” and these fish are almost the living embodiment of the idea taught by Jesus.

When I bought these fish, I bought them with a pair of clown loaches in order to help take care of some very expansive plant growth in the tank. I had bought some plants from my favorite fish place and had been warned that they tended to grow quickly. Between the plants and the snails that came with them, it was not long before the aquarium was very green and very infested by snails.

Woe to you fish who are full, for you shall be empty. They devastated every single plant in the aquarium in a matter of weeks. When they arrived I couldn’t see the back of the tank. After they were happily established, every single plant in the aquarium was doomed. The snails had just as rough a time. Indeed, the fish made short work of the basil roots shown in this picture. They were so full for a while, but then they were more than empty.

The plants actually have grown to the point that their roots are managing to reach into the tank now. Their roots grow quickly and there’s enough space within the plastic enclosure, planting medium, and clay pellets that their roots are thriving despite the nibbling. I am almost certain that all of the plants would be rootless if I had let the fish “be full” of plants, but blessed are these fish for their “emptiness” means that there will be enough for tomorrow’s nibbling.

“Living” and Hunger

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.

An overlook in Chenango Valley State Park

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?

“Present” and hunger

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “Present.” As it is a Monday, our devotional points us again into Luke 6:-17-26. This week we are focusing on the contrasting concepts of hunger and fullness.

While it can be difficult to come up with a connection between the Lenten Photo-A-Day and the theme of the day, today was an easy selection for me. I know of the perfect present that has taught me about a hunger that goes deeper than just a craving for food.

I spent last Thanksgiving with my brother and his wife. For the first time in years, I did not spend Thanksgiving with my wife and it was the first time in 13 years that my eldest was not around complicating things. It was a heartbreaking experience that I know many others have experienced over the years.

After Thanksgiving, I had an opportunity to visit with my kids. In a red folder, I received a picture from my youngest. She had colored a picture of a turkey and wanted me to have it.

I practically ran to hang it up in my bathroom. When my kids are around, they see the turkey hanging there and I remind my youngest that I love it. I truthfully tell her that I say a prayer for her each time I notice it, whether it is the middle of the night or first thing in the morning.

Once upon a time, we had so many pictures come home from school that it was hard to choose. When my eldest was in second grade and my middle child was in kindergarten, our refrigerator was practically a battlefield when we had to decide what picture would go where. My refrigerator was “full” of pictures.

Now, the pictures are few and far between. I am hungry for pictures from my kids. I never realized how lucky I was to have all of those pictures filling my fridge. Like almost all parents, but not in the same way as most, I went from a full nest to an empty nest overnight. I long for the days when the kids are here in our house. I long for those moments when I could hug my kids after school and celebrate their pictures.

In the devotional, the very heart of what I am trying to get across is found at the beginning of today’s reading: “One of the greatest challenges of using the beatitudes found in the Gospel of Luke is that they use slightly different language than those found within the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel.” The hunger listed here is not qualified by a connection to righteousness like in the gospel of Matthew. As it says later today: “As we look at hunger throughout this week in Jesus’ teachings, we will notice that it relates to questions around wealth from the previous beatitude and to questions around sorrow and laughter in next week’s beatitude.”

I know that I hunger for something that is connected with both sorrow and an impoverished heart. As we go through the devotions this week, I hope everyone finds a place of connection. I also hope that they find safe spaces to express any sorrow that they feel while on this journey.

“Celebration” and Sobriety

Our devotional points out hard words from Christ today. In the New Revised Standard Version, Luke 5:39-40 says: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

Throughout the season of Lent, Sundays are “mini-Easters.” Traditionally, Sundays are moments of celebration in the midst of a somber season. The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt acknowledges this by having every Sunday until Easter be the same theme: “Celebrate.”

Even with that prompt for celebration, I feel called to celebrate out of a place of testimony today. My photo is of a flower that was blooming in the nearby Henry Smith Woods in the heart of Trumansburg. It was one of the first flowers of the season and I found it to be beautiful both in its vibrance and in the way it has a wonderful blossom that reminds me of the Trinity. What minister wouldn’t love a flower with three petals on one blossom? Well, one who doesn’t enjoy oversimplification, but it is still quite a flower!

So, what does the scripture bring to mind today? It reminds me of the fact that I am in recovery and that recovery has been a challenging road.

A few years ago I had the bright idea of running on an elliptical everyday as a fundraiser for the church. It was going wonderfully until one day I had the audacity of trying to pull up my pants after running too hard. A trip to Urgent Care, multiple visits to my doctor, and months of physical therapy followed.

I am the child of an alcoholic. I have had a gastric bypass surgery which means that once something goes down my throat it doesn’t come back out, Both of these are reasons I should never drink. I was so desperate to get rid of the pain that late one night I tried mixing alcohol with my medication to make the pain go away. It worked for a while, I got in a habit of soothing the pain until that soothing didn’t work anymore. Like many people who have been ensnared over the years, I drank to get rid of one problem and found a lot more waiting for me including the very thing that once “helped.”

The first step of Alcoholics Anonymous is to admit that life has become unmanageable and that you are powerless over alcohol. My goodness, things grew out of hand quickly. Things kept getting worse until the day that I, as a minister who had helped others to do this very thing, had to hit my knees in prayer. I came to a point where I had to tell God that I had not only made a stupid mistake but that I needed help to get out of my brokenness.

“Pastor Rob, didn’t you realize what was happening?” No. I just wanted the pain gone. “Pastor Rob, were you helping other people deal with literally the same issue while you were struggling?” Yes, but this physician couldn’t heal himself. “Pastor Rob, do you feel ashamed about the fact that you did something so stupid?” Yes, although I have come to realize that there were bigger things going on than just that one mistake. My life was unmanageable for a number of reasons, none of which are unique to me. There are ministers who become addicted and there are ministers with family problems. I’m not unique in either of those things.

The words of Jesus still strike me hard: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” For so long I believed in Jesus, sought through the scriptures, and even shared the testimony while refusing to come to Christ in this one area of my life. I chose secrecy instead of honesty, hiding brokenness instead of admitting struggles, and even offered hope while refusing to accept it for my own brokenness.

The flower I share is like me today. I am watching my petals spread every single day, have new growth reaching out after years of dormancy brought about by fear, and have even started making new friendships after a long period of feeling as if I did not deserve something as simple as friendship without my family’s approval. I used to feel as if my heart was locked in a cage like a silent bluebird but am increasingly feeling like I am rising on the wings of a phoenix.

Even if you have had moments when you have refused God’s love and help, it is not too late. Friends, trust me when I say that God loves you deeply and truly. If you need help, there’s help out there. There are places where you can walk through the door and they won’t judge you for needing help. A lot of them are filled with wonderful people who will bend over backwards to make you feel welcome and help you get your life back in order. Don’t hide in the shadows: the light is okay.

There is a way to freedom. It may not be easy, you may stumble, and you may want to give up sometimes. Don’t give up. You can find freedom with help. Don’t give up.

“Good” and the mystical faith

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.

My eldest during a time when life was challenging. I have always believed with all of my life that my eldest is good and I am so grateful to be his father.

“Pray” and True Wealth

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.

“Celebrate” and Quiet Prayers

There is a question repeated several times with several different phrasings throughout the reading from our devotional for today: “What is in the closet of your heart today?”

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.”

Buckwheat Chocolate Chip Scones

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.

“Protect” and the Withered Hand

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.”

Lily the Dog watching over us

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.

“Alone” and Compassion

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.

Black Diamond Trail in Trumansburg, NY

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.

“Tempted” and the People of Nazareth

The #RethinkChurch word of the day for the Lenten Photo-A-Day challenge is “Tempted.” Oh, what a prompt for the contemplative practice of Visio Divina. Oh, what wonderful things I look forward to seeing as I wake for the day, post my photo on my Instagram, and then pick a photo to contemplate before waking up to face my day today.

I wonder what I will see today. Will I see muffins or cookies? Are people already regretting following the tradition of giving up meat on Fridays when a steak would be delicious? What is tempting? Will there be acknowledgment of love and temptation despite the nature of the season?

As I read through the devotional today, I find myself contemplating the nature of Jesus standing in his hometown of Nazareth. Everyone has their own expectations of Jesus, but my ongoing understanding is that Jesus was not, is not, and never shall be a person who simply does what everyone around him wanted, wants, or will want. Jesus was an individual who came to do the will of God and not an individual who simply came to do what other people always wanted.

Still, the temptation must have been amazing for people. Here is the carpenter’s son who has been doing all of these amazing things. What will he do for us? How quickly the temptation must have been to switch to “What should he be doing for us?” or “What do we deserve from him?”

I have no idea if the paintbrush of the Biblical narrative is fair to the people of Nazareth, but I can say that I often feel tempted to think less about others and more about myself. I am often tempted to grab onto life and to take a hold of what I want and what I think I deserve. I have moments where I want to take, take, and take some more.

“Russula Emetica” a.k.a. “The Sickener”

So, what photo ties these ideas together for me today? This photo of a mushroom was taken last year in the Finger Lakes National Forest. It looks lovely, doesn’t it? It is also highly poisonous. If you see it, I would imagine that you also might think that it looks like a candy mushroom or something Alice would eat to gain some marvelous transformation. Do not eat it: this mushroom is extremely poisonous. It is a temptation, but not every temptation falls under the scope of the adage “You should try anything once.” or “How do you know you don’t like it unless you try it?” This temptation might kill you and will definitely make you ill, so don’t give in!

There are lots of temptations that come through life. Not all of them are healthy, even if you can justify the temptation in your head. Some of the temptations might kill you if you give in. Feeling like you deserve something does not mean you should have it. Thinking that something would be incredible and great does not always mean that you should have it, do it, or take it.

I am grateful that Jesus was generally a man of peace. I am grateful he did not respond to the frustrations of the people of Nazareth with some of the responses other people might be inclined to enact on people being unreasonable and aggressive. I hope that I can have such self-control when I face temptation.

A Lunch Reflection

“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.