“Compassion” and the Eagle

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Enough” and the Lonely Leaf

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

My photo for today is a picture of a single leaf that I found fluttering besides a walkway in the Sapsucker Woods north of Ithaca. I walked through the woods last fall and saw this life. As I contemplated how the leaf sat on the end of the branch alone, I found a kinship with the leaf as it fluttered alone.

Is it better to laugh than to cry? Not always. It is certainly better to come to a place where you can laugh with Jesus rather than laugh at Jesus. Grief is a powerful thing and can cause a great amount of pain and disorientation. Would the parents laugh in the same way if Jesus had arrived before their child passed away? Often grief blinds us to the possibilities in front of us. The parents in the story with Christ were clearly in a place where they could not see beyond their grief.

I chose the picture of the leaf for “enough” for several reasons. First, the leaf was a beautiful leaf. As lonely as it seemed, it was still lovely. I am also enough even when I am alone. You are enough even when you feel lost or alone.

Second, I chose the leaf as an affirmation of the fact that last fall while I was on an afternoon walk there was enough goodness in the world that I was shaken out of my thoughts. I lay on the ground to get this photo from this angle. Would I rather have been somewhere else? Yes, but even when I was disoriented and somewhere I did not want to be, there was enough beauty in the world that goodness shone through my own sorrow.

Third, I chose the leaf as an affirmation of the fall. What I think is permanent today will one day fade away. My life is that of a leaf. One day it will be done. God willing, one day another leaf will fill my place in the world. I hope you have such a hope as well.

“Filled” and Lonely Mugs

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

In contrast to this image, the theme for today in our devotional revolves around grief. Jesus was the son of God, but also was the son of Joseph, Mary’s husband. As the devotional notes, Joseph has likely passed away by the time of the events of holy week.

There is an interesting question that connects the image of a coffee cup with questions of grief. What will happen to my coffee cup after I am gone? I have three cups in my church office. I rotate between an orange mug and a black mug, but I also have a mug covered in gnomes for when my children visit. What will happen to those mugs when I go?

I have served in many churches over the years and almost every church has a cupboard full of mugs. Some of the mugs are from church events, others are from various homes, and others have just shown up over the years. Will my mugs end up in a cupboard somewhere? Will someone else enjoy the joy of coffee from an orange mug or feel as serious when they drink from my black mug?

In the end, I do not know where my mug will end up. This is a simple reality at this point in my life. I neither grieve the fact that I will one day be gone nor mourn the fact that I do not know where my mugs will end up when everything is said and done. What I do know is that I should take today seriously because there are things far more important that I shall leave behind. Even more important than those things are the people that I will leave behind.

It doesn’t matter to me where the mug will end up, but it does matter whether or not I have a loving relationship with my children, my family, and the people I care about. I hope that Joseph left no relationship broken and no words unsaid. I hope that I might leave no words unsaid.

“Need” and the autumnal Bee

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

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

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

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

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

“With” and tears

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

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

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

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

“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.

“Planted” and Aquaponic Fish

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

Nibbling fish

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

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

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

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

“Living” and Hunger

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “Living.” Throughout this week we have been looking at hunger and fullness in our devotional, but I wanted to take a moment to note that there is more than one type of hunger.

Last fall I spent a lot of time walking and praying. One place I went for an extended walk was in Chenango Valley State Park. If you spend enough time in Chenango Valley State Park, you will realize that there are definitely places where a lot of people travel and places where few people travel.

During my first few visits to the park, I spent a lot of time walking around the large loop which surrounds one of the lakes and crosses over what could be called the isthmus between the two lakes. As I continued to visit over the years, I found various walking paths down near the edges of the lakes, but there was one path that always tempted me. It just sort of went off into nowhere from behind a picnic shelter.

I wondered what might be back behind that picnic shelter visit after visit until I was so hungry to know what was back there that my dog and I went out exploring. We hiked, hiked, and hiked some more. Eventually we came out of one section of the path and found ourselves at the top of a hill looking over Chenango Valley. The view was breathtaking and there was this cute bench setup for people to rest and look down upon the valley.

An overlook in Chenango Valley State Park

This photo has little to nothing to do with actual hunger, but it does have a lot to say about how hunger for knowledge, love, or even food can affect the way we think. When we find ourselves hungry, our priorities can change, our limits can be stretched, and occasionally we realize that God is out there beyond the realm of where we are full and “happy” with the things around us.

I invite you to ask yourself if there is a place in your life where you are hungry. Is the hunger meant to teach you something or stretch you beyond the places where you are safe and comfortable?

“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.

Recipe: Simple Yogurt Sauce

  • 1 c Thick Yogurt
  • 1/2 tsp Lemon Juice
  • 3 small to medium Garlic Cloves
  • 2 TBSP Fresh Dill
  • 1/2 tsp Ground Pepper
  • 1/2 tsp Cumin
  • 1/2 tsp Salt

Instructions Peel garlic cloves and crush with the fresh dill in the bowl you will use to combine the ingredients. I imagine you could do it in a food processor, but I find that crushing the garlic and the dill releases all of the tasty oils. Combine crushed garlic and dill with yogurt and remaining spices. Stir to combine and refrigerate.

As a note, I make my own yogurt with my Instapot. I use whole milk and cream, add in around 1 1/2 tbsp vanilla, and let it cook for at least 12 hours. My yogurt is super thick and tangy and I make a batch each Sunday to mix with Grape Nuts for a quick breakfast most days of the week.

I based this on a recipe for chicken, but I had some over breaded porkchops (with a heavy paprika element in that breading) that I air fried. The resulting flavor of the yogurt sauce and the paprika on the porkchop reminded me of the sauce on the Polish dish Mizeria. As such, I imagine it would be delicious with cucumber as a salad or as a dip for air fried summer squash coins. I also had some over hulled barley and lentils, which was also quite delicious.

“Sacrifice” and the Bridge

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day word of the day is “sacrifice.” It is a somewhat difficult thing to balance the idea of sacrifice with this week’s theme of hunger and fullness. The challenge does not rest in making a connection between these two ideas, but in making a connection that is not overly personal.

In the fairly Christian culture of my teenage years, there was a common description of what Christ does through the events of holy week. Christ makes a bridge between our lives and eternity. The idea behind the analogy is that there is a massive gap between our lives in this world and the life we were created to live. We can jump as far as we want, be as righteous as possible, and we still won’t be able to leap the distance.

What happens without Christ? We fall into the gap which can be described as torment, hell, or death. Instead of leaving us in this position, Jesus came for us, died for us, and created a way for us to reach the other side. Christ is our bridge.

The photo I selected for today is of a rickety bridge over a tributary to the Cayuta Creek. I found the bridge on a walk last fall while trying to think through some personal struggles. I found the bridge and to be honest, I really wanted to see what was on the other side of the bridge; however, at least in my head, there was not even the slightest possibility that the bridge would have supported my weight. The bridge appeared rickety, broken, and frightening.

One of the things I have come to understand in my own walk with Christ is the fact that my relationship with Jesus is a relationship that is founded on love and respect. God doesn’t force me to walk over the bridge to life. There are places in my relationship with Christ where I am offered life, but even as Jesus builds a bridge to life, I must choose to step out in faith.

Jesus’ sacrifice brings life and light into my darkness, but I must choose to step out in faith. It can be really frightening to trust Christ. Occasionally the bridge looks really frightening. Sometimes, we need to face our fears and step out onto the bridge even when it is scary. Christ sacrifices for us and sometimes we must choose to sacrifice our fears in order to choose life.

“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).

“Good” and the mystical faith

Our devotional reading for today begins with the line “Christianity is a mystical faith, but not a magical faith.” Depending on the version you are reading, there is unfortunately a typo in that line which makes it read “Christianity is mystical faith…” .Even now, my editing program is having a conniption over that phrasing and it makes me wonder how I missed it when reading the devotional through multiple times while searching for errors and typos.

Christianity is a mystical faith that connects the practical physical reality with something beyond normal understanding. In the scripture reading we read of thousands of people eating a shared meal after one child came forward with five loaves of bread and two fish. The story is amazing, but it is not the only story of how people have seen the wondrous happen without the blessing of incredible wealth.

Soldiers from two different nations stopped during the first World War for a day of shared peace on Christmas. The peace could not have been bought or sold, but it was shared freely with people who shared the same faith on different sides of a war as they remembered the words “Peace on earth, and good will to all.” Victims have forgiven people who have committed atrocities against them simply because God asked them to forgive others. A sailor engaged in human trafficking came to a point of conversion and decided to stand against the very practices he once engaged in for a living. As an abolitionist, he both advocated for the dignity of the people he once harmed and sang about the amazing grace that changed his life.

Often without a world of riches at their command and often against the expectations and desires of the wealthy and powerful, people have dug into empty pockets and found that they were far richer than it looked on the outside. God has a way of showing up in a miraculous way to provide for those in need, whether it be through a changed heart, a call to forgiveness, the same hymns sung in different languages, or even the willingness to share found in a boy with five loaves of bread and two fish.

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “good.” I am blessed in many ways, but being a parent has often stretched me beyond the ends of what I thought were my limits. I have cried for my children, held them while they are sick, prayed over them at a distance, and now regularly wake up in the middle of the night to wonder where they are and how they are doing at that moment.

I have not always been the perfect parent, but that is not the fault of my children. I often feel like a poor father and I cannot give them everything they want in this world. Somehow, I have still been considered worthy enough by God to be their dad. I love them deeply. They are good, even when I pray for a way to be a better father. On some days, I even allow myself to believe that I must be good if I have been entrusted with such amazing kids.

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

“Awake” and seeing around us

On a spring day of last year, I was out and about with my camera when I noticed something in the nearby woods. It was May and the weather was beginning to warm up. Life was blossoming everywhere and it seemed like everyone (including the animals) had places to go and things to do.

Cars drove by, birds flew overhead, and this deer ran down the side of the road. As I contemplate the #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt of the word “Awake,” I wonder if this is the only image of this deer in existence. Does anyone think of this particular deer today? If I hadn’t opened my eyes to see the world around me, would there even be a trace of this one deer in the world?

If still wandering the roads, I hope this deer is doing well. If not, then I pray what was good and holy in this deer is kept safe and well in the hands of the One who brought it into being. As I cannot know, I am simply grateful that I was awake enough to see when this momentary blessing came to pass when our two paths through this world crossed.

In our devotional today, while reading Luke 21:1-4, we see that Jesus was also a fan of being awake enough to notice the world around. As Jesus sat in the temple, a widow with two small coins gave all of the coins that she had to live on to the temple treasury. She had only two coins to live upon and she had the audacity to give both of them for God’s work.

Jesus noticed this moment when a woman with very little put everything into the offering plate. When we read this story in church, I often think about those words from the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor, for they will have the kingdom of heaven. I pray that those words are true because of faithful people like this widow that offer everything to God out of a place of poverty.

As a clergy person, I have to say that it humbles me to think that some people give their last coins to God and I live off of a salary drawn from those offerings. It is humbling and challenging to think that I have food because of someone’s offering. Such offerings made to God certainly cause me to think twice about how I spend my paycheck. If Christ was awake enough to notice the two coins offered by this widow, I cannot imagine ever being comfortable abusing or misusing my paycheck.

I think clergy, especially clergy with any amount of affluence, should see such stories and understand the phrase “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

“Glory” and Sacrifices

We were directed to Matthew 9:9-13 in our devotional today. In the New Revised Standard Version, Matthew 9:13 has Jesus telling a crowd of religious leaders that they need to “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

What a powerful thing for the visible incarnation of the invisible God to say about people! For years the temple in Jerusalem had been filled with both those who appeared righteous and those who appeared “broken.” Sacrifices were brought in thanksgiving by those who were right with God and brought in repentance by those who had broken the covenant laws. The faithful and the sinners worshiped in the same space with two very different purposes.

When God did come to fulfill ancient promises of blessing, you might assume that God would have come to bless the people who looked righteous on the outside. If you believed that God had been willing to bless the faithful with abundant crops, fruitful families, and wealth, then it makes sense that God would come to bless the righteous. God might help those who had asked forgiveness, but it seems like common sense that God would first bless those who had been faithful and apparently blessed by God.

For Jesus to say that he came to call sinners and not the righteous was quite shocking to many people. The smoke that rose from the temple day after day in an attempt for people to honor God and gain divine favor might be lovely, but in the end, Christ was more interested in sharing mercy with those who were hurting instead of increasing the number of sacrifices.

Smoke on a BBQ Saturday at Trumansburg UMC

In choosing an image for today’s #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day challenge, I chose an image of the sun pouring down the closest thing we get to a burnt offering at our church. It did take place outside the church, but the meat was neither burnt nor offered as a sacrifice. The sun was pouring down through the smoke of a chicken barbecue.

The prompt was the word “glory.” I chose the image because it was a pretty amazing and glorious sight to see the sun pouring through the smoke. It is also glorious that God no longer requires us to keep bringing fowl, cattle, sheep, and goats for burnt sacrifices. Jesus came out of a love for mercy and God’s mercy covers us through the love of Christ shown through Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, and exaltation. I believe that Christ’s merciful love will be seen again when Christ returns in what will likely be a different type of cloud than the smoke that comes from a bbq.

Come, Lord Jesus. Come.

“Dazzling” and the Beatitudes

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day Challenge for today revolves around the word “dazzling.” When thinking about the word dazzling, a lot of images come to mind. My thoughts are filled with vibrant, bright, and amazing concepts. A starry night can be dazzling as can the sunshine pouring through stained glass windows.

At first glance, the idea of something being dazzling stands a bit at odds with the devotional reading for the yesterday. We read through the beatitudes in Luke 6 yesterday (which will happen often during this Lenten season with the beatitudes). We are asked by our devotional this week to consider how Jesus views both poverty and wealth.

What does it mean when Jesus says that the poor shall have the kingdom of God? What does it mean when Jesus says that the rich have already received their consolation? How does this reversal of how wealth is commonly seen affect our understanding of Christ? How does it relate to what is truly dazzling?

At Trumansburg through this season we are nailing words to our cross on Sundays. Yesterday we nailed both wisdom and foolishness to the cross. After the service someone came up to me and asked why we nailed both to the cross. Why would surrender wisdom to God on the cross? It was a great question and the simplest answer is that we are nailing our understanding to the cross.

To put it simply, we tend to have an upside down understanding. We think someone is doing well when we see someone with an expensive car, nice clothes, and money to buy anything they want. When someone walks through the door of the church with dirty clothes, an unwashed face, and a gurgle in their stomach, we sometimes wonder what is going on with them. We assume one is blessed and the other is struggling.

Jesus states that the poor will one day have the kingdom of God and that the rich have already received their blessings. In light of eternity, we can understand why Jesus says that we should be wary of becoming and even be sympathetic for the rich who seem to have everything but one day may have nothing compared to those who are suffering now. Even if you do not like this interpretation of the scriptures and wish to shift to language like “poor in Spirit” to shift away from a glorification of poverty, it is hard to get around Jesus’ warning about being rich in Luke.

Sunrise during the first week of 2022

So, what photo did I pick when I wanted to think of something dazzling that had nothing to do with having riches? I wanted to share a photo of something that not only was available to everyone and was likely to be seen only by the people who woke up early to put their nose to the grindstone, woke up early due to restlessness, and generally only seen by those who were either up late working or at least not sleeping in late. It is imperfect as some people work odd hours, but I have faith people can understand why a sunrise is something that is both dazzling and available to the rich and poor alike.

“Pray” and True Wealth

Throughout the readings from our devotional for this week there is an exploration of wealth. What does it mean to be truly wealthy? For Jesus there was a difference between having things and being truly wealthy. One could reasonably argue that a woman who has two coins that she can afford to give to God should be seen as being richer than a person with a wallet bursting at the seams while struggling to let go of the tiniest sliver of their fortune.

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt is the word “Pray.” In selecting a photo for today, I pondered through a great number of photos. In the end, I selected a beautiful flower standing out from the green leaves.

The flower blossom is quite beautiful. The stamen of the flower are outstanding in beauty and quite literally standing out like yellow hands that are waiting to shake an insect’s hand. The purple petals are an inviting shade that contrasts nicely with the green leaves and stems that surround them. If I had to choose what part of this plant to be, it seems like it would be lovely to be this blossom. You could say it seems like it would be a rich experience to be so bold, beautiful, and vibrant.

At the same time, true wealth might rest in being grateful to be whatever part of the flower you might be in this life. You might not wish to be a green leaf or a tough stem, but what an amazing gift it might be to experience the joy of being green or woody.

Many people spend their lives wishing that they were someone else, own something else, or have more of what they already have in this life. People scrabble, hoard, and envy the people around them in lives marked with competition, jealousy, and striving.

What would it look like if we prayed less about having more and prayed more about being grateful? What would it look like if we prayed to have what we need and were grateful for those blessings? What would it look like if we prayed less about having riches and prayed more from a place of gratitude for what we have in this life?

I may never be a vibrant purple flower, but I might be an amazing woody stem. If I can find the richness of having a gruff exterior with a tough hide, then I will be truly wealthy even without the yellow highlights.

“Celebrate” and Quiet Prayers

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

The phrase itself refers back to the reading from Matthew 6:5-6. In that passage, Jesus teaches that when people pray they should seek to pray in secret. In the NRSV, Jesus says. “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

As we pray, what is waiting in the closet of our hearts? When we go to pray, what are we sharing with God inside of our hearts and souls? As it is Sunday and a day of celebration, it is fitting that the #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt is the word “celebrate.”

Buckwheat Chocolate Chip Scones

Like many people, I find that it is great to celebrate with a treat. A few months ago, my kids and I were celebrating time together when we decided to make scones for breakfast. We wanted something sweet, but money has been tight.

We dug through the freezer and cupboards and found the ingredients for scones. My middle child found the chocolate chips in the back of the freezer, I found the right type of flour, and my youngest happily knew where we store the butter in the fridge. We put everything together, rolled out the dough, and baked the scones.

What is in the closet of my heart when I think of the word “celebrate?” My closet is filled with hopes and dreams. What does my prayer look like as I think about celebrating? It is full of joy for the celebrations of the past and pleading for celebrations in the future.

Does the prayer mean less because I do not lift it up in church during the prayers of the people? Does the church have a magical microphone that enables God to hear those prayers better? On both counts, the answer is “no.” If anything, the prayers I pray in my heart are likely all the more sacred as they dwell between God and me alone.

Whatever your prayer life is like today, I pray that you know that God hears our prayers. We do not need to stand on a street corner or have a microphone to be heard by God. To be sure, it is a powerful thing to pray together. It is great to be encouraged by praying with others, comforted by sharing prayers with others, and blessed by being invited into prayer for others. Still, the prayers of our quiet spaces are just as sacred to the God that calls us to come and pray in secret.

“Protect” and the Withered Hand

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “Protect.” The scripture reading in our devotional today is a story (found in Luke 6:6-11) of Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath. The individual had a hand that is described in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible as being “withered.”

While the daily prompts have generally fit nicely with our devotional, today’s prompt is a bit challenging. I do not always do yoga, but I have been known to stretch ideas when necessary. Hopefully I will not stretch the idea of protecting too far.

What an interesting thing it is to see Jesus love someone and have compassion despite the fact that other people did not see his actions as being holy or righteous. The healing Christ performed on the Sabbath may have been fine on another day, but to violate the Sabbath commandments to avoid work seemingly struck them as a violation of the law.

At one level, I have to admit that I find the reaction of the religious leaders to be an understandable reaction. Their reaction might even be seen as admirable if you consider the extent of their commitment to their faith. While their heart was clearly in a different place than Jesus’ heart, it is understandable that there might be a push towards a very strict faith. The people in our story were living in a world that seemingly had turned against the people of God through the powerful forces of foreign empires and armies. They believed fiercely in their faith because they were likely concerned about losing their way if they loosened their grasp.

Still, as admirable as their tenacity was in such circumstances, they still missed the point. Jesus saw an individual who was hurt and who needed compassion. The people were so focused on the rules that they lost their perspective. I wish I could say that this was a problem that has disappeared over the centuries, but the modern church has often struggled with compassion and love when confronted with hurt people who are easily labeled as “sinners.”

Lily the Dog watching over us

In choosing a photo to portray this point, I went through my old photos and found a picture of my dog Lily standing underneath the trees in one of our favorite spots on the Interloken trail in the Finger Lakes National Forest. Lily looked so noble while looking around to make certain that everything was safe and that we were alone in the fields.

I still do not know how to tell a dog that we are sitting in the middle of a pasture that is fenced in on every side. There are no predators in the field. On that particular day, there weren’t even any cattle in sight. We were in an empty field and there was no reason to be anxious.

I have noticed over the years that we often get our hackles up and prepare to defend ourselves and our faith from threats that really aren’t threats. At the best of those times, we look like Lily being overprotective in an empty field. At the worst of times, we end up causing or threatening real harm to people who have done nothing more than have a withered hand on the Sabbath.

Personally, I plan to spend some time today thinking about the fact that there may be places in my life where I am dead set on protecting something and possibly missing the forest for the trees. I know that my dog isn’t the only silly creature in my home.

“Alone” and Compassion

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “alone.” What a word for contemplation, especially for a father in the midst of working his way through a separation! “Alone” is a word that I have pondered many times over the past few months.

A phrase stands out in our devotional reading for today: “Even when put in a challenging place, Jesus responds to challenge with compassion.” If we are called to become more like Jesus during this journey towards the cross, then what does it look like when we seek to respond to our challenges with compassion?

When writing this section of the devotional, my life was in a far more different place. As I work through this devotional alongside the members of my church, it is with a sense of wonder. Who was the person who wrote these words? I remember the hours working on this devotional, but now see the passages with different eyes and definitely answer the questions differently than I would have when I wrote this devotional.

In selecting a photo for today, I wanted to think about what it means to truly be alone. At the beginning of this oddly horrifying and challenging set of circumstances, I found myself filled with grief over the quiet house, the silent bedrooms, and the challenges of cooking for fewer people. Now, I find myself often coming across beautiful and wonderful things that are bitterly sweet.

Black Diamond Trail in Trumansburg, NY

I took this photo on a cold winter’s day while walking with my dog down a nearby trail. The path was empty of anyone, although there was clearly evidence that I was not the first person to enter the woods. For the entirety of the journey, I was alone with my dog. The wind blew through the branches, the dog snuffled through snow drifts and marked the snow, but it was otherwise silent.

It was beautifully still and silent. A world of icy stillness and solitude for just my dog and me. The sunlight shone through the branches and the snow sparkled underneath golden beams. It was truly amazing that I was able to see such beauty and it felt like that moment was for me and me alone. In the beauty and quiet, I felt as if God was walking right there with me.

It was sweet to know that I still matter enough that God draws near to me in such still spaces. It was sweet to know that God loves me deeply and truly despite the challenges of the past few months. It was also bitter to realize that I might have shared such a moment with my children a year ago.

How do I respond to these challenging moments with compassion? How do I love the people who have broken my heart through either their choices or simply doing their work? These are thoughts for my journal and not my blog, but I can state that this is where the journey for me begins today.

“Tempted” and the People of Nazareth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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