“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.

“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,” tears, and a thirsty dog.

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is the word “with.” As it is Monday, our devotional has us reading the Beatitudes from Luke again. This week we ask what it means to shift our understanding of tears and laughter.

My picture for today is of my dog on a hike last summer. Lily and I were in the middle of the nearby Finger Lakes National Forest when Lily decided to get a drink in the creek we were fording together.

At first, I was aghast. The water was unclean! It had not been boiled, had not been purified, and could make the dog really sick. On the other hand, have you ever tried to stop a dog from drinking? By the time I would have reached the dog, the damage was already done.Also, this is a dog we’re talking about. While she drinks plenty of clean water at home, let’s not pretend she understands the five second rule.

We often look at things in the world with one set of eyes. We see tears and they are rarely tears of joy. Often, the tears we see are tears of sadness, grief, and loss. How can such a thing be a blessing?

Have you ever tried to hold back tears? How well did that work out for you? We assume that all (non-joyous) tears are bad, but Jesus seems to invite us to consider that everything is not as it seems. As is always the case during this season, I invite you to be surprised by the journey this week.

“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.

“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?

“Repent” and the Flood

Sometimes everything aligns in a moment of serendipity. There have been several times where there have been challenges throughout this season of connecting devotional to the #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt. Today is not one of those days.

The first thing that I do in the process of writing these entries for Lent is to find photos that have potential to connect with the prompt. Today’s prompt word is “repent” and I found one photo and one photo alone that fit the prompt.

Last year, after a particularly stormy day, I decided to walk from my home to the nearby lake. It is a ten mile trip which is unfortunately only half downhill and unfortunately begins by going downhill. In other words, after I was halfway done the walk became much more difficult.

Still, I walked down to the lake and I was amazed by the amount of water. The water had risen far above the level of the ordinarily dry walkways and parkland. Looking out over the water, I was shocked by the way that features like trees, signs, and grills that I normally walked past on dry ground were being accosted by waves.

Why choose this photo for the word “repent?” It reminded me of Noah. What is Jesus discussing in our devotional? Noah! I even highlighted Luke 17:27, which says in the NRSV: “They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.”

How could I pick any other image than the one good photo I have of a flood? In the days before the flood, people were walking the shore while looking for sea glass, grilling at picnics, and fishing on the pier. Suddenly the floodwaters came and there was nothing to do for it, but to give thanks to God that the storm had abated and the water would soon return to normal levels.

It seems silly to think that there might have been a person grilling or a child playing on any other day. It seems silly to compare these minor inconveniences to the “Day of the Lord,” but we all will face moments when we face things we never expected. The Day of the Lord comes to each of us even if the specific day of the Lord that Jesus was referring to in this gospel may have fallen upon Jerusalem long ago.

It is perhaps wisdom gained over the years, but I wonder if it is wiser to live a life where you have kept your life in order than to live a life where the end may come and you have not done all that needed to be done or said all that needed to be said. Perhaps it is better to live with a repentant attitude than to assume there will always be a tomorrow.

“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.

“Chosen” and generosity with wealth

The devotional asks us a question today without using a question mark. Our devotional says: “One deep question this raises is what we consider to be our wealth and what we consider to be God’s wealth.” What is our wealth? What is God’s wealth?

This past Monday morning, I had to drive down to Vestal in order to get my tooth fixed. Back in 2016 I had a golden crown put on a tooth which I have since privately called my “piratical tooth.” If my floss breaks while flossing, my tooth is likely being piratical. If a piece of food needs a good crunching, I often smile as I bare my teeth and chomp down with my golden tooth. I love my golden tooth and on Sunday night it tried to pull a runner.

I was nervous about the price of gas on the ride down to Vestal, which lasted until I was told that my dentist no longer accepts my insurance plan. I was then anxious about the cost of the tooth, but told the dental hygienist that I would have to have the work done without insurance. It hurt to breathe too hard over the tooth, I had accidentally had one splash of coffee on it which caused me to howl, and I frankly needed to eat at some point and would need my teeth.

I was worried about the cost, especially knowing that my wife would be expecting a check to help support the kids even if I had to pay for my tooth to be repaired. I was very anxious, but I decided to pray through the fear and have the work done. After a delightful hour chatting with the hygenist about everything from x-ray procedures, to being okay with new medication as we age (as long as we held out longer than our parents had before need it), to the fact that nobody likes the dentist but they aren’t nearly as scary as physical therapists, we came to the crux of the matter. I never once mentioned my fear about paying, but had decided to have a good conversation and a good attitude even though I was quaking in my boots.

The dentist didn’t charge me. They decided that this was just life with a crown, noted that I had the crown put in place nearly a decade ago, and decided that it must have been a fault in the cement. They knew I had a piece of candy and it pulled out the crown, but they decided to waive the fees for everything including the x-rays. I was so incredibly grateful.

What does it mean to be wealthy? For me, on Monday being wealthy was being in the hands of someone who could afford to be generous and guarantee their work long after I had gotten my original money’s worth. I have kids younger than that tooth but they decided that generosity was more important than profit today and I am grateful. Tonight I am wealthy, for I have a piratical tooth in working order again! I can chew without pain and that’s a gift of wealth that many people in history have not known.

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is the word “Chosen.” In thinking of what it means to be chosen, I wanted to find a photo that fit both the prompt and the idea of extravagant wealth on God’s end. Enter the seagull…

I caught this seagull flying over the beach at Taughannock State Park last year. It was up in the wind, gliding around and looking for food. Well, I say that it was looking for food, but it honestly just seemed like it was having an awesome time surfing in the wind currents.

I have used this image to talk about the Holy Spirit before and probably will again, but let me reiterate what I have said in church. I grew up thinking that seagulls were flying rats. They would attack you with their enthusiasm if you dared to feed them, acted like vultures in the parking lot of fast food places, and there was no punishment for someone you didn’t like worse than dumping a bunch of fries on their car.

This flying rat, despicable creature, loathsome creation… My dear God in Heaven, it is absolutely stunning when the sun shines through those wings. The delicate wings, the beautiful feathers, the artistry involved in giving such beauty to something as common as a seagull. If that’s not true wealth being flaunted by the Creator, then I would be hard pressed to find another example (unless Ratatouille is based on a real story, which it better not be).