“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.

“Full” and Ash Wednesday

The word of the day for the #ReThinkChurch Photo A Day campaign is “Full.” In our devotional, Ash Wednesday revolves around the depth of old words. Our devotional journey begins with the reminder that: “Old words whisper out over many pews today.” The old words do resonate throughout this day and throughout the season ahead of us.

The traditional words that might ring through your memories may be “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Perhaps you remember hearing “Repent, and believe the gospel.” Perhaps the words that ring through your memories are not rooted in old and meaningful liturgies. Perhaps you hear are “The journey has begun. Let us journey together with Christ.”

In contemplating the words that ring out through my memory thanks the Photo-A-Day, I remember the words that have historically have little to do with Ash Wednesday, even if they are fitting. I remember two lines from the Wesley Covenant Prayer, which is often shared each January by Methodist congregations. The lines are “Let me be full. Let me be empty.”

“Wheat Sanctuary Window” in Trumansburg UMC

What does it mean to be full? One photo I considered using is the photo I edited of the window with sheaves of wheat from our sanctuary. The reason I would share such a photo is that I want to be filled with God’s love and light to the point where I am gathered in with the harvest. I do not desire to be set aside or blown away by the wind. I want to be gathered in as a treasure. I want my life to be so full of goodness that I would be gathered in with the wheat.

At the same time: “Let me be full. Let me be empty.” I want to be the person that God want me to be. If my life is filled with glorious goodness and obvious giftedness, so be it. If I am easily seen as a person whose life should be gathered in, so be it. Also, if I seek to be faithful but stumble throughout my days, so be it. If I seek to be easily gathered in but end up rubbing all of the other stalks of wheat the wrong way or end up being a cornstalk in the middle of the wheat, so be it.

Ultimately, the old words whisper out. This season is about the fact that God’s grace was necessary. Jesus walked down the road on a journey of redemption and we all need the love that Jesus shared long ago. I would be full, but even if I am empty, God’s grace is truly what I need on this journey.

I think this is the photo that I will end up using today: a tomato growing on a vine in the middle of winter. By all rights, the photo makes no sense. Who grows tomatoes in the middle of winter? Will it even taste the same after spending the winter under a grow lamp? Will it be delicious or weird? Will it become a vibrant healthy tomato or simply fall off the vine one day? Will the flowers nearby ever grow their own blessings or will they fall to the counter in exhausted emptiness? I don’t know. Let it be full. Let it be empty. An excellent analogy and start to a season of both wonder and solemnity.

Hydroponic tomatoes from my home

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.

Fourteen Years of Chinese

After a week of indecision, I have decided to have Chinese today. Fourteen years ago, on Valentine’s Day, I burst into a liquor store with what felt like the stupidest question on my lips. “It is Valentine’s Day, my wife just gave birth two days ago, and we are having Chinese. What wine goes with Chinese food?” The clerk did not know what to do, what to say, and quickly suggested sake before we both remembered that was Japanese.

Fourteen years later and the marriage is over. There is nobody to share Chinese with tonight, but I still remember bringing home Chinese while exhausted. I remember both of us passing out from exhaustion on our couch as our baby slept while swaddled nearby. I don’t even think either of us even bothered drinking a glass of the wine. I remember all of these things and walking exhaustedly to try and help my wife have a nice dinner on Valentine’s Day with food we both loved.

She isn’t here. Those moments are gone, but I still remember pushing my legs to go out to the car and get dinner. I remember the adrenaline crash after getting everyone home safely after the first car ride with a used car seat and then heading out to find my wife the closest thing I could find to a romantic dinner. I do not want to lose the memory, do not want to lose the feeling of “bringing home the bacon” to a family for the first time, and I remember being proud of myself for something that was so simple. I do not want to forget how my child changed my life on that Valentine’s Day or how I found something far more wonderful than diamonds to give to my wife. I’ll have Chinese anyway and I will remember the most beautiful Valentine’s Day I ever experienced, even if I remember through tears.

"What goes with egg rolls?"
The stunned clerk was quite flummoxed
but did a good job
At least, I think that she did
I do not remember now

“More than a Building”

If you stop to look
more than a mere glance
It is more than a building.

It hides itself well
with the bricks so fine
but this is not just a church.

Real lives change here
when people listen
and find a kind place with hope.

We may not fix things
when the world breaks stuff
but we listen with our hearts.

We share words of home
We offer safe space
for people who are adrift

Not just a building
we are a free pier
for all who sail on life's waves.

Building, dock, or church
This sanctuary
is offered freely to all

I am so grateful
and laugh here with joy
for this is not just a church

In this place we feed
those with a hunger
both in body and/or soul

It is a garden
for all of the "bees"
who need some nectar or rest

It is a warm inn
on a wintry road
when people need safe shelter

It is a rare place
where death comes quite near
but nobody runs in fear.

It is where goodbye
is shared with a hope
that goodbye is "just for now."

It is where we wash
the soul with water
and ask the Spirit to come.

Full of miracles
stories with wonder
defy explanation here

It is made of brick
but is more solid
than just a sacred building

It is a place to find grace
It is a place to belong
It is more than a building
Video, photography, accompianment, and poetry all composed/captured/performed/written by me

Poem from the last “Writing Day”

I struggled to get up today.
Life is really hard some times.
When you wake up on cartoon day
And the speakers sit silently.

I had a rough time with coffee.
My dishes were waiting alone.
There was nobody here but me.
Nobody near to share a meal.

I washed dishes one or two times.
I straightened the countertop stuff.
I prepped broth as I do sometimes
Then I finally sat to write.

The words flow like holy water
and I see the Spirit at work.
Tears stop about my dear daughter
and I see God at work through me.

I do not understand how it works

I wrote this poem last week on a day set aside to write my sermon. I really had a very difficult time sitting down to draft my sermon. It was incredibly hard, but when I finally focused, things went really well. The last line is one of the greatest understatements I have ever written.

I really don’t understand how God works through and in me some days. I wake up feeling miserable and worthless. I sit to write with the simple goal of doing my best: I want to use the talents I have to help make the world a better place despite my own feelings. Somehow it works. It flabbergasts me.

The Calling and a Personal Journey

There’s a long gap in my blog between the events of the past and the events of the present. A lot happened between those last poems from a while back and the poems of today. I have been on a journey of discovery as my wife separated from me as I came to grips with the fact that my marriage was at an end.

There were a lot of missing poems that were shared between shed tears. Like sand mandalas, those poems were here for a moment and then gone. In many ways those poems blurred the lines between prayer and poetry even more than usual. There were moments of grief, anxiety, and loss.

Over those months of quiet self-reflection and work I came to a point where I finally publicly admitted that I am in recovery from alcoholism which did not begin in the last year or during that silence. I have been open about my family’s history with alcoholism, but had never shared the stories with anyone of how I used alcohol to supplement pain medication during a lengthy period of severe pain and physical therapy where I could barely walk or even sit still from the pain. I didn’t have the life wisdom to realize that I should have gone to a doctor instead of self-medicate on top of prescription medication. That decision was dangerous and doubly-dangerous as my family has a history of addiction. It was foolish.

I have had to come to grips with what part of my life had been shredded by alcoholism, realized that there were problems that had had nothing to do with alcoholism in my relationship, and I have realized that I kept medicating pain of a different kind even after my back healed. I have come to understand that this is a season where I need to be faithful to my identity as a single man who still wants to be a good father, wants a respectful relationship with his former partner, and who wants to find a way forward while choosing both life and the high road through some very dark passes in spite of the choices of others.

One of the most difficult conversations I had during that dark period was a long conversation with my District Superintendent where I shared openly and honestly about the journey I have been on. I shared that I still felt called to the ministry, still felt the Holy Spirit at work, and shared about the journey of recovery which has included working with professionals and a particular anonymous organization to connect all the aspects of my journey into one way forward. I have put in a lot of work medically, psychologically, and spiritually over a period of years to come to this place where I am beginning to see the light of freedom in recovery. I have put in hundreds if not thousands of hours into seeking freedom from the consequences of my biology, choices, and a disease that is not infectious certainly seems communicable.

I share this now as I was just blown away by a passage I read while preparing for my sermon this Sunday. I was working through the commentary of Ronald Clements in the Jeremiah entry to the “Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching” Series published by John Knox Press. On page 16, Clements writes of Jeremiah:

“The sense of call, with all that this meant by way of reliance upon God and the stripping away of all other social and personal supports, was something that was taking shape over a long and difficult period of time. It had begun for Jeremiah at a specific moment in his personal life and had continued. The experience of inner self-discovery had not ceased since that first day. The sense of call belong too to his private inner world as a part of his personal understanding of God. Yet it had to be a public and openly declared part of his self-understanding, since it alone could explain his declarations and his personal authority to declare them. No one could confirm or deny that he possessed this calling; it was between himself and God.”

Clements, Ronald E. Jeremiah. John Knox Press, 2012.

I was blown away by this passage. While reading this commentary, I connected deeply and intimately with Jeremiah in a way that I have never connected before this moment. Certainly, I am not the first pastor to sigh over the direction of American Christianity. I can connect the dots between the political and social forces of Judah in Jeremiah’s day and the the political and social forces in modern American religion. I am not the first pastor to wonder if the rhetoric and posturing of many modern church leaders on television is not the gasp of a system that is about to go into exile. This is not where I felt a connection.

I felt a connection as I remember my past. I remember being a teenager who felt called away from a suicidal grief into the love of God. I remember talking with a youth leader about how I wanted to go into ministry because it was tugging at a deep part of me. I remember being a youth leader and a church intern who just kept feeling the compulsion to go deeper. I remember studying and taking the first steps into ministry. I remember the interviews, the affirmations, and the ordination. I remember all of those moments.

I also remember praying with trusted friends in Malvern, PA, at the Academy of Spiritual Formation as I admitted that I was occasionally mixing drugs and alcohol to get through the pain. I remember talking with close friends about how it felt less and less like a choice. I remember asking them to pray for me as I started trying to get free of that compulsion to drink. I remember being dry and miserable on my own without a single supportive voice. I remember the first time I said: “Hi, my name is Rob and I’m an alcoholic.” I also remember that it took a few attempts to find the courage to say those words. I remember meeting with a sponsor for the first time and sharing stories. I remember the anxiety and fear. I remember the first time I worked through my fear and clearly stated aloud why I always note that we serve non-alcoholic juice when serving communion: I say it because of people in recovery like me.

I remember talking with Pastor Parish Relations Members at my church about the fact that my wife and I were separating and how it partially related back to my own journey of recovery. I remember sharing that I had a relapse and that I had climbed back on the wagon quickly because I was afraid. I remember crying with fear about being honest. I remember how freeing it was to tell people that I attend meetings daily via Zoom to continue to seek freedom. I also know that I have both amends and living amends to make with people I have harmed along the way. I remember almost every conversation with someone I have known for a long time where I have said something along the lines of: “I’ve had to come to grips with something.”

Through all of these things I have never felt my call to leadership ebb. In fact, I have had many people open up about their own struggles and the struggles of others. I have talked with wandering folks who come to my church each time they are in the area because the pastor not only understands the journey towards sobriety but is walking down that same road. I share a cup of coffee with them after church not out of sympathy but out of true camraderie as a sojourner down a similar road. I have even performed funerals for people who have and have not found a way to freedom on that same road. I feel like I am a better minister since I have found the courage to be honest about my alcoholism. Honestly, I feel more hampered by the pain of marital and parental separation than the daily journey of recovery.

At some point I hope I will get to the point where I share with others in those meetings that I’m not only an alcoholic but a pastor. Honestly, that’s almost more scary than sharing with the church that I have a struggle with addiction. According to one study published last year, the national average of drinks consumed in the United States was 17 per week (Survey: Americans consumed 17 alcoholic drinks per week in 2020). It seems less strange to admit that I am just another person struggling with the disease of alcoholism that has been on the rise over the course of the pandemic than to admit to other people that I have a very very close relationship with “the God of my understanding,” especially if that means they might share less freely about their own journey and struggles.

In the meantime, I do feel called to continue in ministry quite strongly. Clements indicates of Jeremiah, the calling that Jeremiah experiences was one that nobody could confirm or deny from the outside. I identify with that description of the calling deeply. The calling is first and foremost internal.

Surely, I could be reappointed or even stripped of a title, but that’s different from having the authority to confirm or deny a calling. As the Bishop said at my ordination, ordination was a recognition of what God has done and what God is doing in my life. Ordination was an affirmation of what God was doing and recognition that God was at work in a special way. That journey has not changed and that calling has never ceased. It still burns deeply within me.

I wish I could put into words how strange it is to be called to leadership and authority while daily admitting that I am powerless to straighten things out on my own. The power was never mine, but it often feels easy to assume I am more powerful than I am, which many of my colleagues likely understand. I personally have come to believe it makes me a better leader as I am quite clear on the fact that the power I hold and wield as a minister does comes from God and not from my own strength.

So that’s the story of the long absence between posts. Yes, I am in recovery. No, I’m not ashamed of admitting my need for God to work in my life every day through the process. Yes, I am allergic to alcohol and I have a disease. No, having a disease is not the end of the world. This disease is a disease and not some moral failing or mark of worthlessness. Good people that I have come to trust tell me that there is a solution and I believe that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Truly, I live each day with hope and courage that comes from being on my knees and asking for help each time I wake up in the morning to the snuffling sounds of a dog and each night that I go to sleep alone. God is with me on this journey and that journey will continue 24 hours at a time for the rest of my life. I am okay with that journey and I will keep walking.

Aquarium Herbs

My birthday present

As the years continue to tick beyond control, two things have become abundantly clear to me. Tou cannot take things with you from this life to the next. No matter how fancy the ring or how great the object, time strips away most things. For this reason, this is the moment when we should enjoy the blessings of this life. It is far better to enjoy the moment in which we live than to mourn years past or to long for a future that is beyond today’s reach. I believe Qoholeth smiles across time as the choice is made to enjoy the moment.

Truth embodied in a piece of plexiglass. Spaces for herbs and plants to grow above fish that will dance and nibble among the roots. Basil globes, flowers, and spider plants now dip their roots among the waters as curious fish nip and taste the roots that hang down through the clear lid. Above, an energy efficient bulb shares light and warm with fish and plant alike. Even in the coldest winter, a new symbiotic relationship dawns between the herbs and their hungry neighbors.

Basil roots stretch down
as their bright leaves reach up high:
Fish nibble away
That fish is totally looking at you.

Poem for Church

I wrote this poem for use in worship this coming Sunday as we deal with the grief of resuming virtual worship again.

Go deeper into the Light
When you are scared of tomorrow,
and when nothing seems to turn out right,
trust the Keeper of both day and night.
When your heart is full of sorrow,
go deeper into the Light.

Choose trust when all seems amiss.
When it all seems to have gone wrong
the easy choice would be to just hide.
The Spirit waits for us to confide
and listens to our hearts' sad song.
Choose trust when all seems amiss.

Reach out and take a friend's hand
when it is easy to just cry
and bury heart in your grief or fear.
Dear friend, you and your life are too dear
to wander lonely paths and sigh:
Reach out and take a friend's hand.
The sunrise today.

A Story of Sara

So, in preparation for a writer’s retreat this fall, I’m working through “One Day I Wrote Back: Interacting with Scripture through Creative Writing” by Jane Herring. Today I worked on interacting with the story from 2 King 5:1-16 and was invited to retell the scripture from the perspective of the nameless Hebrew slave. I rewrote it in a modern context from my own experience as a grocery store cashier after college who was struggling with debt. I borrowed a few details about practices like using fake names from colleagues who dealt with a lot of sexual harassment from customers while earning minimum wage. I hope you enjoy and remember: creative writing occasionally takes liberties with the source material! Special credit to “Dave” from Trinity Church, Grand Island, who always gave me extra strong coffee when I’d show up 2 hours early for church! What a saint!


I work the weekend swing-shift at the grocery store. A few years back everything was going well until my car broke down on a cold winter’s day. Now I bag groceries, deal with drunk customers, and clean off registers while the day shift sleeps.

My name is Sara, although I wear a nametag with a different name to keep the customers at a distance. If they see me on a different day, I will know who they are if they call out for “Jackie.” I learned my lesson early after one of the Saturday night customers walked up to me on a Tuesday to try and sweet talk me as I tried to eat my lunch in peace. It is bad enough having people stare at my body while I work. I don’t need more of it on my own time.

Sometimes, my job makes me want to scream, especially when the bills come in. I pay minimum balances but the paycheck doesn’t stretch. I’ll never save up enough to get out of here. I’m drowning in debt, cannot afford a car, and will probably live my whole life in walking distance of the store where I spend my evenings and nights. It sucks.

Sunday mornings are the worst. I go to church after my shift and drink enough free coffee to get me through until the service begins. I do my best to stay alert and attentive, but it is very hard when the warm air from the heater hits me after the seemingly endless days of going to bed at sunrise and waking up after twilight. It’d be different if I weren’t swinging my sleep schedule back and forth, but it is hard when the church is full of safe people that remind me of home, the air is warm, and the music is peaceful. Thankfully, I sit by the couple who have grandkids that work retail. They wake me gently with a smile before the offering if I fall asleep. It is hard to sleep with an usher handing you a plate, you know?

So, yeah, I still go to church. I try my best to live out my faith, but it is not exactly easy. So many people come in hammered on Saturday nights. They act as if they are having a great time, and here I am working to just cover the bills for minimum wage. It sometimes feels like I’m the biggest sucker around, but I believe. My faith is at the core of me.

My manager and I talk about it sometimes. She can be nice when things are going well. On quiet nights we sometimes talk for a few minutes after she comes and buys something for her break. Her husband is sick. I feel like she talks to me because she just needs to talk.

It isn’t surprising she talks to me. I’m often alone on the front end as she manages the stocking of the shelves. It can be hours between when we see each other and I’m the person who smiles and does her work quietly because the alternative is… just standing here staring at the clock…

There are nights I am done by 2:00 AM despite my best efforts and those are the worst. Talking with anyone on a slow night is a treat. When anyone interrupts me on those nights, I am happy to see them. I don’t need cajoling to work, smile when she comes up, and I’m not surprised she doesn’t mind talking with me. I’m her easy “no-drama” employee who clocks in on time.

I guess her husband is pretty sick. It has to be rough. All of those medical bills, all of those appointments, and absolutely nothing to show for it. She’s so weighed down by it that it is just painful to see at times.

Back in my hometown, we had this service once a month where people would go to pray for their illnesses and lives. I have been looking for something like that near here, but there was something different about that service back home. It was a holy space: the way the community gathered and prayed together. Even the air felt different in that sacred space of prayer. I only went once for myself. I was heartbroken and didn’t know what to do. When the minister and the church prayed over me, it lifted my soul. I still think about that feeling of peace as their hands hovered over me. The air sparkled with care and… the only way I can describe it is grace. It was a merciful, blessed, holy space.

Perhaps I will tell my manager about the service this weekend. There’s another one coming up pretty soon: last Sunday of every month as it has been forever. Maybe her husband will want to make a trip of it. I’d go with them, but I work Sunday nights. I’ll still be sleeping during the service, hopefully thinking of anything but straightening magazines and finding warm meat stuck behind candy because someone couldn’t be bothered to give it to their cashier.

First Sunday Haibun

I sit in the quiet of sacred space before worship. Nobody will walk in to disturb the stillness—a webcam will connect me with others. I am a latecomer to worship online in the age of COVID-19. A green light will shine and I will look into the two lights of the camera: LED lights look like eyes around a lens-shaped nose.

Decaffeinated French Roast coffee sits with a piece of homemade whole-wheat sourdough for my portion of the love feast. The only copy of the bulletin printed on the church copier sits next to offering plates that will not be passed for some time to come. My drum rests with anticipation for the moment it will ring out while I sing quietly into the only microphone.

There will be no packed house for my first SUnday. The building and I will spend time together as we enter into a new space with me as pastor. Interestingly, I do not feel alone. I prepare to meet today like many ministers have over generations—as best as I can in the place I stand.

I am not alone.
Sitting in the pastor’s chair
the saints surround me.

Preparing for a “Love Feast”

I finally have internet at the house again! We have been settling into our new community slowly. Boxes are slowly thinning as we settle a bit more each day. Today is a technology heavy day as we had internet installed and i have an afternoon of finding various wires and devices ahead of me!

July is practically here and this Sunday is my first Sunday at the Trumansburg United Methodist Church. We are celebrating a new appointment and I am planning on celebrating with a digital “Love Feast.”

There’s a lot of information out there on Love Feasts. This tradition is tied to United Methodism through John Wesley’s exposure to the Moravian Church. This tradition is one of my favorite traditions because of the simplicity, the beauty, and the communal nature of the Love Feast. I also enjoy the Moravian tradition of sharing a hot beverage or chocolate milk with holy conversation.

A written reflection on the history of the Love Feast can be found through the United Methodist Church’s Discipleship Ministries website, but I enjoy this video from the General Commission on Archives and HIstory due to the emphasis on the relational nature of the Love Feast.

The relational nature of the Love Feast is why I am excited to connect this ancient practice with worship this weekend. We may not be gathered in person, but sharing testimony and blessing with bread and hot cocoa seems like a wonderful plan!

“Asphalt Space”

Less than two weeks waking in this old town: a parking lot altar stands for an hour. Old wedding superstitions are mirrored: Something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue picked by coincidence. A space for lawn chairs marks a short moment where oily asphalt holds holy thin space.

Psalm instead of song, mask instead of mic: Word and prayer still anchor our shared time. Only one more Sunday moment is left. Sorrow asks for blessings on the marriage of heaven and earth to continue on when my service is but a memory.

In this space renews
a sacred vow held quite dear
for two centuries

“Asphalt Space” by the Distracted Pastor, 2020

In the Woods…

We are getting ready to move soon. There’s a lot of stuff in boxes in my life. Everything seems to have a place and most of those places are currently found inside boxes. Living with most of your daily stuff in boxes can be extremely frustrating.

This morning I went into the woods on a nearby trail with one of my daughters and my wife’s “lapdog” Lily. Lily is a boxer labrador mix that we adopted after our friends’ dog became overly friendly with a neighborhood dog. She’s a kind hearted dog but hates being cooped up.

The woods are a magical place. The woods are one of the few places where my middle child is occasionally struck speechless. The majesty of wilderness tends to calm her restless mind as there is plenty to look at, plenty of things to notice, and the ongoing task of watching where you are stepping.

This morning the ground was a bit moist from recent rain and Lily ended up dragging me along some pretty slippery surfaces. Her paws and nails clearly had better traction than my sneakers. We enjoyed the walk tremendously despite being startled by a jogger’s German Shepherd visiting without a leash and without warning. Thankfully Lily is a very easygoing dog. I think that I jumped more at the sudden appearance than Lily.

I stopped to take this picture of Lily because the woods were breathtaking between the light of the sun pouring through the branches and the greens and browns everywhere. Despite being on a strong leash due to her tendency to run after wildlife, she seemed more at home in the woods than she normally seems in our home. I could almost feel Lily sigh with contentment a few times on the hike.

Psalm 55 is an interesting psalm. In that particular psalm, the psalmist is struggling with the grief and sorrow that comes from a friend’s betrayal. The psalmist is clearly having a difficult time with a painful situation, but what’s interesting is the response to the situation.

The psalmist wants to flee to the wilderness. In the wilderness there seems to be a kind of peace that the psalmist desperately desires. In the daily moments of the situation the psalmist finds storms and wind, but in the wilderness shelter can be found.

I can understand the psalmist’s desire for the shelter of the woods. Like my dog, I too enjoy moments where we are not surrounded by boxes. There is something glorious about being in the woods even when German Shepherds occasionally appear out of the nothingness.

“Big Heart” Poem

Take the fragrant dough.
Fold it: let it grow.
Treat it gently: Just like so…
Heat oven below.
Place with care—don’t throw.

Listen to the news…
Injustice… anger…
In-law wearing riot gear…
Burning effigies…
And hurting people…

Slice the bread to toast,
Brew a dark decaf French roast:
Seek the Holy Ghost…

“Big Heart” by The Distracted Pastor, 2020

I wrote this poem to express the challenge of the morning. I sat to write a poem to go with the toast made from an experimental loaf I made yesterday, The loaf was made with a lot of care.

While thinking about what words to use, I listened to news about tensions over police brutality. I heard a lot of frustration with a broken system. I thought of the gasping words coming from a man who could not breathe. I thought of burning buildings representing inadequately an unjust system that seems fire-proof. I was already grieving when my wife came down to tell me my brother-in-law went to work in riot-gear today.

The poem starts very clean and measured with a rhyming pattern, devolves as the world intrudes, and ends right where I am as a person: sitting quietly and listening for comfort and wisdom. The title comes from the thought I had and the original first lines: “It takes a big heart; to hold joy and grief.”

Reflections on Taut Dough

Over the last week at Maine Federated Church, our daily devotional has focused on the subject of the spirituality of bread baking. A while back, our church used Preston Yancey’s “Out of the House of Bread: Satisfying Your Hunger for God with the Spiritual Disciplines” as the basis for a small group study. Last week we delved into the same subject using additional resources. In particular, we delved into the science of bread baking through “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” by Harold McGee and Ken Forkish’s “Flour Water Salt Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza.”

This morning the Maine Federated Church is shifting to a week studying the Ascension, but I am not leading an Ascension service or a Memorial Day service. I am preparing a loaf of bread to go with dinner. Leading a church without an online worship service in the midst of the pandemic has been frustrating at times. I understand the rationale behind the church’s decision to proceed digitally in a way that is inclusive to all people in the congregation, but it is unsettling to wake up Sunday morning with time to bake bread.

To be entirely clear, while I am frustrated, I believe with all of my being that the church has a responsibility to reopen in a way that is measured and safe. I do not believe that we should rush into a dangerous situation that can endanger lives because any politician says that it is time to open. I also own the fact that this is my opinion.

Yeasty scents come from under this kitchen towel!

Today I am working with a recipe from Ken Forkish’s book. In particular, I am making a loaf of whole wheat bread to go with dinner. Overnight, water, flour, and a little bit of yeast fermented on our counter in a container. This morning, I combined the biga with additional water, flour, salt, and yeast to create a dough. Over the last few hours, I have sat with the dough as it continues to grow across the room. Yeasty scents fill the air and lead to thoughts of life.

One of the parts of the bread baking process which is in my thoughts this morning is the folding process recommended by Ken Forkish. I have folded the dough four times and have noticed the dough growing more and more taut as the process continues. The folding helps to give structure to the dough and itself is very interesting. When you first uncover the dough, it seems like a sloppy mess. After a few gentle folds, the dough begins to show a structure that seemed impossible moments before.

The tension in the dough continues to amaze me. Without the stress placed on the dough, the dough would end up a messy pool of liquid. When the dough is stretched, the dough develops the structure that will make the bread incredible.

Think about what spiritual lessons might be drawn from a parable rooted in this practice. We all want to live in communities that never face tensions, but can we be shaped into the communities we are meant to be without the occasional pressure or stressor? Just as a knife cannot be sharpened without the pressures of honing or as an athlete cannot grow stronger without challenging practice, can a community grow stronger without facing the occasional struggle? Can an individual grow into their potential without facing difficulty?

To be clear, there’s something to be said against stretching the dough to the point where it rips. Dough can definitely be overworked, but dough can also be underworked. How would the bread turn out if a person just put the ingredients into a bread pan without mixing?

As a minister, I have witnessed congregations that were unwilling to engage in healthy challenges and stretching. Most of them have struggled and some of them have closed. As a person, I have witnessed in other lives and have lived through portions of my own life where an unwillingness to engage in difficult situations led to terrible consequences.

When we live with the goal of never facing difficulty, we often become weakened to the point of uselessness. While this is a difficult time in life, it is my hope that the stretching we are all facing might strengthen us over the long run. May God bless you all this Sunday and keep you well.

Fresh from the oven!

Enthusiasm for today…

Empty streets below skies
blotted by ashen hued puffs.
No voices carry on cold wind
As footsteps seem noisy intrusions...
This is a still place...

Listen within. 
My soul breathes,
heart beats:
life.
This is a still place...

Yesterday it rained a lot here. From morning until evening, the skies were filled with rain and the temperature was just a few degrees above freezing. The few walks that I took with my dogs and children were taken on streets drenched in rain. The streets were mainly empty, which is pretty normal in quarantine. The cold rain only made the walks chillier, the yards emptier, and the entire area’s mood more somber.

For the last few weeks of quarantine, I’ve been slowly reading through Richard Rohr’s “Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer.” I say that I’m reading it slowly because the price of Kindle books has taught me the wisdom of rationing books during this time of stillness. My personal budget for books has not grown even as the time to read them has increased…

The book is interesting. I do not always agree with Fr. Rohr’s writing, but thankfully my beliefs do not require me to agree with someone’s entire belief structure to glean wisdom where I find it. Let’s take this idea from Fr. Rohr which strikes me as particularly interesting on page 96:

If contemplation teaches us to see an enchanted world, cynicism is afraid there is nothing there. As a people, we have become cynical about ourselves, our world, our future. Some rightly said, “The problem is no longer to believe in God; it’s to believe in humanity.” We’re tremendously under-confident about what it means to be human. For many secular people today we live in a disenchanted universe without meaning, purpose, or direction. We are aware only of what it is not. Seldom do we enjoy what it is. Probably it is only healthy religion that is prepared to answer that question. Healthy religion is an enthusiasm about what is, not an anger about what isn’t.

Richard Rohr, page 96 of “Everything Belongs”

Yesterday, the world was empty, wet, cold, and windy. The weather outside was fairly to quite miserable. The news on the radio was not very warm and cuddly. I could have easily chosen to be angry about the world. I could choose to embrace anger, anxiety, fear, or despair.

Instead, I smoked a turkey that we froze in our freezer last fall. Earlier in the week I brined the turkey with a homemade brine. We thawed the turkey in a brine for five days. We brought the brine to a boil before cooling to room temperature prior to submerging the turkey. We smoked the turkey with cherry wood chips with brine in the water pan. With three hours left, we put potatoes underneath the turkey to smoke and to be flavored by any drippings falling from the turkey.

The turkey three hours before dinner. Confession: I forgot to take a picture when finished due to the busyness of the moment.

The day could have been thoroughly miserable, but there was opportunity to find joy even in the midst of a dark world. We cannot choose the world in which we live. We can choose how we try to approach the difficulties. Sometimes there are neurochemical challenges which require medical help, patterns of habits which are detrimental, or a propensity towards anxiety, depression, or fear; however, we still can make a choice.

Last night, we had smoked turkey with smashed smoked potatoes. The turkey was moist and flavorful, the potatoes were tasty, and the inevitable cranberry sauce was devoured. We have enough leftovers for the next few days today and turkey broth cooking in the slow cooker. Even these moments can be beautiful if we choose to find a reason for hope and joy. Perhaps you’re not a cook or have nobody to cook with, but this day is still the day we have for today. We can choose to be enthusiastic about what is rather than angry about what is not.

Brine Recipe: For every five pounds of turkey: 1 clementine sliced into wedges, 1 tsp prague powder #1, 1 tsp peppercorns, ¼ c brown sugar mixed into a brine made with enough water to submerge the turkey)

“People who are in good health don’t need a doctor; sick people do.”

As a church we’re working through a devotional that I personally prepared called “The Path of the Beatitudes: A Lenten Journey.” The devotional is available off Amazon as both a Kindle book and in large print on paper.

Today we’re reading through Matthew 9:9-13 as a people. In Matthew 9:12 of The Inclusive Bible, the words which comprise the title of this post are spoken by Jesus. Jesus states freely that people who are in good health don’t need a doctor, which leads to a question: If Jesus is in the process of bringing life into the lives of poor, then why is the “Doctor Jesus” spending time with people who could objectively be seen as rich?

In my opinion, there’s a common misconception about church. People believe that church is a place for people who have everything together. It is common to find people who find church people to be self-righteous, judgmental, and hypocritical. Interestingly, Jesus did not seen to spend his time with the people who had everything together.

People could objectively look at the scriptures Jesus and see a hypocritical teacher who says a blessing will fall on the poor while spending time with the rich., but is that truly the message we should take away from the story? Jesus does not say the rich are healthy. In fact, Jesus implies the people who he is sharing a table with are not healthy. Wealth does not equal spiritual health in Jesus’ eyes. The tax collectors and notorious sinners are ill: the doctor has come to make a “house call.”

Throughout this week, Jesus will stretch our understanding of what it means to be wealthy and who is in need of blessing. May God give us wisdom in a world that glorifies riches and sometimes isolates on a pedestal the very folks who need loving and healing community the most.

The “Jesus problem” is noticed…

As a church we’re working through a devotional that I personally prepared called “The Path of the Beatitudes: A Lenten Journey.” The devotional is available off Amazon as both a Kindle book and in large print on paper.

Today we are looking at Luke 6:6-11, which contains the story of Jesus healing a person with a withered hand. The story is an interesting one and certainly lends into the story of Lent. The last verse of our reading indicates that the religious scholars and Pharisees left the synagogue on that day looking for ways to do something about their “Jesus problem.”

The Lenten journey is one which ends in the events of Holy Week. There is no Lent where Jesus ends the season without suffering on the behalf of the people God loves. The desire of individuals to take care of this Jesus problem increases as the season progresses.

What’s interesting to me about this approach to Lent with the Beatitudes is that we see how a portion of Jesus’ teaching affects both Jesus’ life and potential the lives of the people who hear his teachings. Jesus offers healing to a person with a withered hand and the people walk away with sinister thoughts in their hearts.

I wonder how the person felt whose hand was healed upon that day. If it were me, I am doubtful I would have walked away grumbling about what Jesus had done. I would likely celebrate the unexpected blessing that came into my life.

This Lent, God may have something for us. God may give a blessing into our lives which we may not be expecting. God may give a blessing to us that we do not believe we deserve. God may bring a piece of radical healing into our lives, especially if we find ourselves struggling to find our place in this world.

I pray that God is with us all tonight and into tomorrow as we prepare to enter into worship. May God add blessing to our lives and may we celebrate it together in worship tomorrow.

“What have you to do with us?”

Today is the first Friday of Lent. As a church we’re working through a devotional that I personally prepared called “The Path of the Beatitudes: A Lenten Journey.” The devotional is available off Amazon as both a Kindle book and in large print on paper.

Our reading today focused on Luke 4:31-37. The passage immediately follows our passage from yesterday. In the passage Jesus of Nazareth is approached by a person who is “possessed” while in nearby Capernaum.

Jesus is asked two questions: What does Jesus have to do with them and has he come to destroy them? Jesus frees the person of their condition, but the questions remain. What has Jesus come to do?

This Lent, that’s really the question we all must ask before we dive into the matters found in the beatitudes. What has Jesus come to do? Jesus’ teachings can radically affect the way we interact with the world. What has Jesus come to do in our lives?

One of the things I am appreciating about both using this devotional and writing this devotional is that it approaches Lent from a completely different angle than most Lenten studies. It is my hope and prayer that spending time in less traditional scriptures might help us to see things differently this season. What has Jesus to do with us? What might Jesus want to do in our lives?

Only time will tell how things will look, but I believe Christ has come to bring grace into my life. Things I have done may need to be discarded, patterns in my life may need to be destroyed, but I believe that at the end of this journey and Lent I will find myself alive in Christ.

Nazarene Privilege

Today is the first Thursday of Lent. As a church we’re working through a devotional that I personally prepared called “The Path of the Beatitudes: A Lenten Journey.” Today is the last day that the devotional is free on a Kindle, on the Kindle Cloud Reader, or both.

Our reading today focused on Luke 4:14-30. The passage speaks about the proclamation of Jesus in his hometown of Nazareth. Jesus reads from Isaiah. Jesus proclaims that the words of Isaiah have been fulfilled:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 4:18-19, NRSV, where Jesus references a portion of Isaiah 61:1-2

The reason we are looking at this in our devotional is a perceived connection between the proclamation from Isaiah and the radical words of the Beatitudes. The poor are blessed and here Jesus proclaims that the blessing is good news. In the original reference which Jesus is references, Isaiah also points out that the mourning will be comforted.

What’s interesting to me is the way that the Nazarenes are frustrated that the blessing will not begin in their midst. Their community has sheltered Jesus’ family, despite Jesus’ colorful birth narrative. In this gospel in particular, Jesus is effectively born under taboo circumstances. Jesus is not conceived in a culturally acceptable time-frame. They are pleasantly shocked the carpenter’s son is able to surpass the traditional role of a carpenter’s son until Jesus proclaims that they will not receive preferential treatment.

Interestingly, there’s a very common word in modern circles that describes what the people are experiencing. The people of Nazareth feel entitled to be blessed first for having a role in Jesus’ life. They are expressing a sense of privilege. Surely, Jesus must bless them first, right?

I have three daughters and one of them is still getting used to the idea of clothes. In particular, she wants to dress herself or wear nothing at all. The other day I captured the perfect image of her point in life.

This is not how pants work…

Yes, that’s my child trying to put pants on over her head. I am aware that there’s a pants trick going around the internet where you put your legs in one side of the pants and your body through the other side, but that isn’t in her wheelhouse right now. She was genuinely confused about why the pants weren’t working.

The people of Nazareth are genuinely upset about what is happening. Jesus is not supposed to act this way as a child of the community. What Jesus is doing in saying he will not go out of the way to bless his hometown is beyond the pale of proper behavior for the people of Nazareth. They feel a sense of privilege which does not find this acceptable.

Yesterday, we talked about how the call of Lent is to “Repent, and believe the gospel.” Many individuals find themselves in the midst of a slog of a pit in their lives. As a minister and as a Christian who has engaged in evangelism on regular basis before entering into ministry as a professional, I came across many people who effectively said that their regular attendance at church, their being a good person, or even their family’s devotion meant that God should immediately bail them out of the tough parts of life.

To be brutally honest, there are times in life when that kind of belief is simply not consistent with how the spiritual life works. There are situations we face where we have to do more than notice we’re in the bog of life. We are called to repent of what led us to this place, turn towards God, and believe the gospel. Occasionally that belief is best manifested in honest attempts to step forward with faith despite the difficulty.

There’s truthfully moments where God will walk with us, but we must let go of that privilege. If you’re addicted to some substance or behavior, you may need to believe while you choose to not engage in that behavior or entering into dangerous places. If you’re struggling with mental health concerns, you may need to believe while regularly taking medicine to help your body function. If you’re grieving, you may need to believe while understanding there are stages of grief you may have to experience.

Sometimes, we each need to understand that the pants go on our legs despite our belief that they’ll work the way we want them to work. The humility that comes with a lot of Lenten practices can be an excellent place to practice what may become necessary on your journey.

May God bless us today as we ponder what we each might take for granted in our spiritual journey. May God help this to be a fruitful day.

Ash Wednesday

Our church is beginning a journey along with many in the greater Christian Church today. Several of our members are gathering with our neighboring churches to begin the Lenten journey with an ecumenical service in a few hours. We will sing, pray, and reflect on our lives as Christians.

As a church we’re working through a devotional that I personally prepared called “The Path of the Beatitudes: A Lenten Journey.” Through tomorrow the devotional is free on a Kindle, on the Kindle Cloud Reader, or both. Writing a devotional for a season is a new experience for me, but I found the practice of putting in the work to be fruitful for my own spirituality.

Today’s entry focuses on the passage which lies behind the majority of the devotional. The passage we read together today is Luke 6:17-26 and the focus of the devotional is a phrase out of the United Methodist Book of Worship. The liturgy for the Ash Wednesday service uses two distinct phrases during the imposition of the ashes.

The first is very traditional: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This phrase has a lot of depth, especially as it is echoed in the traditional words during many memorial services. There is a direct correlation with the phrase “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

The second phrase is also traditional. Our devotional is focused on the words of this phrase. “Repent, and believe the gospel.” When using this phrase, the Lenten journey begins with two instructions. We are called to repent. We are called to believe the gospel.

Photo from Chenango Valley State Park in Chenango Forks, NY

Often, the call to repentance is a major part of Lent. Repentance is not simply a matter of feeling guilt. The call is not to live in shame. Repentance is the process of recognizing your failings/shortcomings and turning towards God onto a better path.

In truth, there are many places in my own life where I feel as if I were walking through a field like the one in my picture. I walk along while looking at the sky until I find myself tumbling into the freezing cold waters below. Sometimes I know there’s a pit nearby, but sometimes I wander into the murky freezing water without any warning.

Repentance is about more than simply acknowledging that there’s a problem. Repentance is often about realizing that the only way out of the pit that we find ourselves standing in is with the help of God. Many people who have found themselves dealing with anything from an addiction, grief, depression, or chronic anxiety might tell you the ONLY way out of that pit is often with God’s help.

The reason I love this particular phrase on Ash Wednesday is the idea that we are called to believe. The photo I showed you is a desolate one, but did you notice the birds? There’s life down in that pit of freezing water. The water is cold, the situation would be miserable if you were trying to climb out the opposite side, but there’s still life.

The call on us today is not only to repent on this journey, but to believe in the gospel. Jesus Christ can work in our lives this Lent. The Holy Spirit can guide us through the darkest of our days throughout the years. Our Creator can create life in the midst of our lives. Let’s repent, and believe in the gospel.