“Found” and being loved

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

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

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

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

“Peace” and the Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Needs” and a Happy Sight

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bring” and Blessing Bags

The #rethinkchurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “bring.” As someone who spends a lot of time taking pictures in nature or pictures of family, the idea of connecting one of my photos to the word “bring” was a bit of a challenge. Eventually, after a great search a long way into my photos, I found a picture of the blessing bags we have been handing out as a congregation to people in need. Each blessing bag has a small amount of food, water, and often simple necessaries like a comb, hand sanitizer, or a new toothbrush.

The idea of the blessing bag is simple. We may not hand out money to people on a street corner, but we will do our best to give them something concrete. How do we have these on hand when we come across someone in need? The answer is that we bring them in our cars, carry them in a backpack, or have them on hand when we are somewhere that they may bless someone in need.

In our devotional today, we read the story of Jesus’ interactions with a Canaanite woman who came to him in need. The story is in Matthew 15:21-28. Jesus’ dealt with the Canaanite woman with compassion.

At the end of the day, the purpose of the blessing bags is to be able to share compassion with others in a concrete way. Does everyone take them? No. Do some people really get frustrated that we are not handing them money? Yes. Why do we do it anyway?

We do it because we want to share with compassion. I know that when I hand out blessing bags it is often for the simple reason that I want to be compassionate but I don’t carry money with me. The closest branch of the bank where I have my account is in Corning, so I tend to do most of my transactions digitally. I cannot give people cash because I don’t have any cash on me, which is good because cash tends to burn a hole in my pocket.

I know that others hand them out for a very different reason. They hand out the bags because they want to do something more than hand someone money. Clean socks may not mean much to me, but to someone who never gets clean socks, they are a gift. Socks, water, and even hand sanitizer offered during a pandemic: each of these are kindnesses offered by one human being who sees the humanity in someone else. I see compassion in that loving act.

So, what do I connect with compassion and “bring?” Blessing bags! May God bless them, the hands that share them, and the hands that receive them.

“Always” and the Sunshine

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

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

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

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

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

“Cared” and Tiny Flowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Raised” and the Beatitudes

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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.