Emptying in the Wilderness: A Lenten Journey into Letting Go
Safe Harbor Presbyterian Church….Lent 2022
Throughout the centuries of the church’s life it has been a customary practice during the season of Lent for the faithful to ‘give up something’ as a sign of devotion. Often those commitments fade fast. Even if we do remain steadfast it can become a dogged practice of self will that leaves us rushing to the Seven Eleven for Twinkies as soon as the clock ticks past midnight on Easter morning. While God blesses all attempts at faithfulness, I do wonder about how much the kingdom actually hinges on our ability to refrain from sugar or broccoli or cussing for 40 days only to become more focused on those things by the very act of denying them.
Still, Jesus himself fasted for 40 days in the wilderness. Just after God’s revelation of his mission to him at his baptism, the Spirit drove him into the wilderness for a time to grapple with his identity and do spiritual battle with anything and everything that sought to undermine him. Remember, that in addition to being the Son of God, Jesus was also fully human, just as we are. He faced and wrestled with the same ‘devils’ that we do. In order for him to do what he came to do, he had to tame the competing forces and release any power they held over him. With Jesus as our model, I believe that each of us must do the same thing if we are to live our most blessed lives and fulfill our most holy mission.
This year, I’d like to propose a different kind of Lenten fast. Loosely using the temptations that Jesus faced (see Luke 4:1-13), each day in Lent, I invite you to practice letting go of a particular habit or tendency of body or heart that has the capacity to lead you off course. You don’t need to try somehow to wrestle the thing out of you. It will only gain power if you do that. Rather, like Jesus did, simply name the thing, recognize its danger and let it go. Sometimes the release will be gentle and almost effortless. Other times you may need to cast your burden, hurl it with a little force. You will know which is called for. Don’t ruminate on the thing and give if more power than it already has. Just notice and say as a prayer: “I don’t need that. That’s not me. Thank you, Lord.” You may find that some days don’t touch you at all and others touch something deep in you. Go at your own pace. You may want to repeat a day several times before moving on. You also might not be ready at all, so you can just skip that day and only do the ending prayer. If you are able to do the release, close your devotion each day by repeating aloud the following except from Isa. 43. It is God’s response to your prayer. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
March 1 – Fat Tuesday – In Mardi Gras country where I live, Fat Tuesday (which is of course the literal translation of Mardi Gras) is the pinnacle of the wild season of floats, parades and balls. In pre pandemic times, churches often had pancake suppers with contests for who could eat the most pancakes, sausages and pralines. I kid you not. It was like we all had to gorge ourselves with good things because during Lent we would be deprived of all joy and happiness. Traditionally a time to repent of sin and prepare to live better lives, it never made a lot of sense to me to try to sin as much as possible the night before. But that’s just me. Today, I invite you to spend some time thanking God for all the joyful abundance of your life. Don’t try to gorge yourself or enter into a spirit of deprivation or scarcity. Today, just enjoy. Create in your mind a mental parade of all that God has given
you and watch it pass by with joy. Knowing that that parade is never ending can help us face the challenges of keeping a holy Lent of Letting Go. Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Gracious God, the fullness of our lives is wonderful indeed. Today we pause to thank you for every blessing. Help us see the journey of Lent that starts tomorrow, with all its relinquishments, as a part of that parade of blessing, too. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
March 2 – Ash Wednesday – Letting Go of the Masks - Begin by reading Luke 4:1-13. (This is the story of Jesus’ temptations/testing in the wilderness. You might want to read it each day until it is well fixed in your mind.) Today I take down my Mardi Gras tree. It is really just my Christmas tree with the ornaments changed out to purple, gold and green butterflies, tinsel and masks. Masks are a big thing during Mardi Gras. And, truth be told, they are a big thing in our lives as well. We wear dozens of them. Sometimes they are needed. Life doesn’t go very well if we express on our faces or with our words every thought that comes into our heads. Still, if we wear masks too long, (one’s like our happy face, or our angry face, or our able to handle anything face, or our ultra-competent face,) we can come to so identify with those masks that we think they are who we really are. Granted, they are a part of who we are. We are happy. We are angry. We are competent. But we are more than that as well. Sometimes the mask’s primary role is to keep us and others from seeing who we really are in all of our human complexity. Today I invite you to consider the masks you wear each day. What do they do for you? What do they take from you? Let the Spirit lift one in particular to your mind. Look at it carefully. Where did it come from? What is it designed to hide? Then simply put it down. You might say as a prayer, “I don’t need that. That’s not me. I release it to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Gracious God, during this journey of surrender in Lent, thank you for your tender care and wisdom. I know that all you want for me is freedom and love. As I release the masks I habitually wear, help me to see more clearly the me that you love so dearly. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 3 – Letting Go of Self-Indulgence - During his time in the wilderness, Jesus fasted for many days before his temptations came into stark focus. Fasting for spiritual purposes has a long history in most of the great spiritual traditions. It is not about denial, or weakening the body from lack of food. It is not even about self-control. Fasting is about making space within for new growth and insight. It is about coming to understand our self-indulgences and how much room they take up in our hearts. Fasting helps us understand those things that we do habitually, or even addictively, and why we do them. Spiritual masters have long understood that self-indulgence can be a potent numbing agent. We can gorge ourselves on all kinds of things, food, drink, hobbies, or even just pastimes. We can indulge in a second bowl of ice cream when we are full or a whole bag of Ruffles when we are anxious. These indulgences are often just an inappropriate way of managing unpleasant
emotions like anger, fear, self-doubt or boredom. Today I invite you to consider your self indulgences. See if you can tell the difference between self-care or kindness and an indulgence that is actually the opposite of self-care in disguise. Why do you think you choose that indulgence? What emotions are you trying to manage with it? What emotions actually arise as a result? Let the Spirit lift one specific instance of self-indulgence to mind. Look at it carefully and with supreme gentleness. You might say as a prayer, “I don’t need that. That’s not me. I release it to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Gracious God, sometimes I don’t know what is good for me. Or if I do I don’t always act like it. Help me today to release to you anything that is self-destructive. Fill me instead with the feast of your love. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
March 4 – Letting Go of People Pleasing - We can’t know the specific things with which Jesus wrestled in the early days of his wilderness experience. I have often wondered if, early on, he had to wrestle with the desire to shape himself in a way that was more palatable and pleasing to others. Surely even this early he knew that his message would ruffle feathers. Moreover, that it could create a storm of rage and indignation that would be hard to turn around. And yet, in the stories that we have of him, we see very little ‘people pleasing.’ Kindness? A plenty. Wisdom? A stunning amount. Tenderness? That too. But trying to shape his life and message to please others? Not at all. I cannot say the same of myself. There have been many times when my need to please has harnessed my tongue. There have been many times when my need to please has muddied my boundaries and made self-care a pipe dream. What Jesus helps us see is that when we measure everything we do by how we think it will be perceived, we probably will never be true agents of change or ushers of the kingdom. Today, take a moment to think about your tendency to ‘package yourself’ in order to please others. I’m not talking about actions you take from genuine love in order to bring joy or lift others up. I’m talking about actions you take or do not take out of fear of rejection, judgment or being seen as faulty. Invite the Spirit to show you a specific incidence when you molded yourself out of shape to please others. What did you do it? What did you need that you thought you could not get otherwise? Look at that tendency carefully and gently. When you are ready, you might say as a prayer, “I don’t need that. That’s not me. I release it to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Gracious God, help us to remember today that you have created us and we are beautiful in your sight just as we are. Create within us a spirit of love so strong that we can simply be who we are without fear or recrimination. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
March 5 – Letting Go of the Tyranny of the Urgent – Surely during those long hungry days in the wilderness, Jesus must have thought of thousands of things that urgently needed doing. Perhaps the orders were backed up in his carpentry shop. Perhaps he had agreed to speak at the Temple. Perhaps his mother had given him a list a mile long of things to do. Perhaps he had heard of someone who needed his healing touch. Perhaps he was
driven to be in worship and learn from the other rabbis. It would be natural. Whenever we find ourselves in a moment of spiritual transition or transformation, we too can find our minds cluttered with other things that seem more urgent. We have a deadline at work. Supper doesn’t cook itself. Our child or grandchild needs to be picked up from school. Our library book is due and we haven’t finished it. Others need our help and they need it right this minute. All of those things are perfectly true and important. Still, not everything that feels urgent is actually, in this moment, urgent. Some things would even benefit from our taking a pause to breathe deeply and sort the important from the crucial. Today I invite you to pause and release the tyranny of your personal urgencies. Take a moment to think about your duties or desires. Is there anything that cannot wait for five minutes? If so, do that immediately! If not, take a look at what seems so crucial and ask yourself whether it is important, urgent or maybe not all that important at all. Why do you drive yourself in this way? What does being ruled by the urgent numb you to? What does it protect your from? Does it really? If you find that things are not quiet as urgent as you thought, take a deep breath and release them one by one. You can always pick them back up again at their time. When you are ready, you might say as a prayer, “I don’t need that. That is not me, Lord. I release it to you. Thank you.”
Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Gracious God, help me today to order my priorities in a sane and gentle way, trusting that you will deal with what is urgent and I can rest in your provision. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 6 – Letting Go of Busy-ness – Yesterday we thought about the way that the demands of life that seem so urgent can skew our priorities and leave us stuck and unable to make healthy choices. In a related way, never stopping can leave us spiritually stuck and emotionally and physically exhausted. In the beautiful story of Jesus visiting his friends Martha and Mary, Mary sits to learn with the men while Martha runs herself ragged trying to manage all the household duties involved in entertaining a special guest and his entourage. Jesus wisely tells Martha that Mary has chosen a better path. Why? I think it was because Jesus saw that what Martha was ‘doing’ was ‘doing her in.’ Why? Had her duties become a substitute for her real life? Had her many obligations kept her so frazzled that she never took the time to deepen her faith? Was she always going to ‘get around to’ learning scripture or prayer when the laundry was done or the living earned? We, too can use our busy-ness as a way to avoid going deeper in our faith. We can use our busy-ness as a way to protect our egos and make ourselves seem indispensable. Surely in the wilderness Jesus must have ruminated on all that he was not getting done. Yet he stopped. He took time to create space in the busy-ness of life for a deepening sense of his mission and a careful refining of his character. God calls each of us to that same kind of Sabbath stopping. When we let go of our busy-ness, what we find behind it is the powerful presence of Love, ready to hold us, mold us, heal us and turn our attention toward the next right thing. I invite you today to stop for a little while. Just stop. Stop long enough to feel any discomfort that may arise in you. Allow that discomfort to be. It will rise and pass away. Imagine all of your busy-ness as a parade of little boats on a stream. Notice each one but don’t jump on board.
Let the flow take them. As you watch them pass, you might say in prayer, “I don’t need that. It’s not me. I release it to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Gracious God, help me today to live mindfully and peacefully. Show me where my busy-ness gets in the way of living my fullest life in you. Help me to release what I do not need to do, trusting you for all outcomes. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
March 7 – Letting Go of Carrying a Painful Past – It may be hard for us to imagine that carrying the wounds of the past was something that Jesus needed to relinquish. Still, it may well have been. Scandal had followed him from even before his birth. Had Joseph been more of a stickler for the Law, Mary could have been executed when her pregnancy was revealed. The scandal of Jesus’ parentage surely affected Joseph’s business and his standing in the community. Mary was, no doubt, a pariah. As Jesus himself grew, the scandal followed him and his every action was scrutinized. Wasn’t he the kid whose mother got pregnant before she was married? Wasn’t he the kid who scared his parents by running away to the Temple? Didn’t he hang out with the wrong crowd? Didn’t he act really strangely just last week at his baptism? Carrying the internal burden of those painful moments in his life could certainly have hampered his mission. If he carried that baggage he might have had less compassion for those who had hurt him or his parents. The memories of the old hurts and shame might have taken up too much energy inside himself, so much that he might have missed opportunities that were crucial for his mission. That is certainly true for many of us. When we carry around the internal load of painful memories it can, not only sap our strength and truncate our mission, it can also lie to us about others and ourselves. The ones who hurt us become objects of scorn and we can begin to hope that they will suffer for it. On top of that, we can begin, secretly, to believe that we deserved what we got and thereby heap more shame and abuse on ourselves, pulling the scab off the wound over and over again. Either way, the God, who asks us to cast our care upon him, asks us to remember that our wounds neither define us. Nor do they define the ones who hurt us. I invite you today to remember a wound you sustained in the past that has never fully resolved. Look at if carefully, if it is not too painful. Look at it from a distance. You are no longer in that situation. You can safely observe it without danger of further harm. Why has this memory lingered so long? Do I feel mostly anger about this incident? Sadness? A sense of broken trust? Shame? When those feelings arise, let them pass away on their own. As those feelings pass away, you may find that the space left behind by them will be gentler and much more compassionate. When you are ready, to release this memory and all of its pain, in a spirit of prayer say, “I don’t need that. That’s not me. I release it to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Dear God, sometimes we collude in our own pain by carrying hurtful memories too long. Help us today to let go of the old hurts we no longer wish to carry. Fill the spaces left behind with your grace and forgiveness. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
March 8 – Letting Go of Unrealistic Expectations – Surely, in those early days in the wilderness, Jesus was filled with all of the images and expectations about who Messiah would be, and what Messiah would do, with which he had been trained. Yes, there was a strain in Israel’s history of Messiah as suffering servant, but it was far from the dominant strain. Messiah was to be the mighty war hero who would raise an army, rout Rome and insure that the promises made to Abraham and Sarah were once again realized in the land. In that time of hunger and heightened spiritual sensitivity in the wilderness, did the Spirit encourage Jesus to take a look at the expectations of his tradition and release them so that he could be the Messiah we needed and not necessarily the one we expected? If so, I am sure that letting go of those expectations was no easier for him that letting go of our expectations is for us. Do you harbor any expectations that, upon reflection, are probably unrealistic for your life? Does the inner you (who still feels about 32 but is closer to 72) still harbor the expectation of Olympic Gold or a Pulitzer Prize? Or is it subtler than that? Do you expect your family and friends to agree with you, or, at least, to be persuaded by your erudite arguments? Do you expect to keep you house perfectly? For your business to never suffer a downturn? Do you expect that new tube of makeup you bought on line to actually substitute for a scalpel? Do you expect gratitude from those that you seek to serve? Do you expect the church to look like the inner church of your dreams with bursting pews and angelic choruses? One of the things that is wily about expectations is that the more we cling to them the more likely we are to miss what God is actually doing in the moment. And that is always more winsome, beautiful and well suited to our needs than our imagining. Today I invite you to pause for a moment and think of expectations that you hold that may be unrealistic. (This is not, of course, to deny that God does miracles. In my experience, those miracles are rarely actually expected.)Consider your expectations. Do any of them consume too much energy or leave you dissatisfied and feeling unfulfilled? How would it feel to let go of some of those expectations? What would you lose? What would you gain? When you are ready, choose one or two expectations to release to God’s safe keeping. You might pray, “I don’t need that. That’s not me. I release it to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Gracious God, I thank you for the capacity to look forward in holy expectation of good things that you always bring. Help me today to let go of any expectations that are not of you and not for the good. Use my newly freed heart today to rejoice in each moment as it comes. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 9 – Letting go of Self-Doubt and Indecision – To come to realize that, as revealed at his baptism, Jesus was God’s beloved son and God was well pleased with him, must have taken a bit of reflection as well. Just because the church claims that Jesus was sinless, does not mean that he never made a mistake, missed an opportunity or hit his finger with a hammer in his carpentry shop and expressed his displeasure! Even if he did none of those things, we know that he learns and grows as his ministry progresses. A women with a sick child changes his mind by her arguments. From Judas’ kiss of betrayal, he learns that he can’t trust all the ones who show initial enthusiasm. At this early point in his story, when all of those instances lie in his future, he must surely have wondered if he was really the One, if
he was really the Right One. He must have wondered if he could really make the decisions that were called for and if he could trust the decisions that he made. Perhaps one of the Spirit’s tasks before the devil shows up with his wily ways, was to help Jesus come to trust himself and his decisions. To do that he had to let go of any self-doubt that his human nature raised in him. Otherwise the cross would have been insurmountable. Self-doubt and indecision can leave us vacillating and immobilized in our lives as well. Whether it is wondering about a major purchase, or whether we can handle a new job, or whether our parenting decisions are sound, or whether it is safe to resume life in a pandemic world, we too can get stuck, afraid that any decision we make will be the wrong one.
Just as the Spirit was with Jesus in the wilderness, so too the Spirit is with us today. In that sense we are not alone in our decision making and indeed, relatively few decisions are irreversible. Today I invite you to consider any decisions with which you are struggling. Why are you struggling? Do you need more facts or just more confidence? If the later, take a moment to imagine your self-doubt as a stone in your shoe. Imagine taking off your shoe and removing the stone. Ask yourself where it came from. How did you acquire it? Look at it from all angles and prayerfully say, “I don’t need that. That’s not me. I release it to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Dear God, sometimes indecision and self-doubt make us miserable and leave us useless to you and others. Today we release those feelings and trust in your guidance in all things. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
March 10 – Letting go of Self-Defeating Patterns of Thought – Perhaps this tendency was not one with which Jesus wrestled. Although we can imagine that in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he begged his friends to pray with him and his father to relieve him of the burden of what was surely coming, that he might have been stuck in a loop of fearful thoughts about suffering and death. Many of us get stuck in those kinds of loops. We go over and over a possible negative outcome to a situation. We second guess everyone and their motives. Our inner dialogue can be as simple as “I’m getting weaker.” “I’m afraid my money won’t last as long as I do.” “He is cruel and will never change.” “She only cares about herself.” “The country is on a downhill slide.” “There is no hope. This pandemic will never end.” There is no end to the list of negativities that we entertain in our minds every day. The apostle Paul reminds us that the route to true wholeness is through changing the way we think. He says that we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. Here is the thing: what we think about is what rules us. What we think about obsessively creates our life and it takes a concerted long term determination to break the hold of negative thought patterns on our lives. It is hard, especially when those around us are locked in negativity as well. Even if that is not the case, the world in which we live certainly gives more air time to our bad news than our good news. Just remember that we give attention to is what grows. Today, pause for a moment and ask God to show you any negative thought patterns that you may not even notice anymore. Look at that pattern carefully. What are its roots? Who taught it to you? What does it seek to hide or to protect you from? To release these patterns of thought is not a one-time thing. It requires a choice to turn from those thought patterns multiple times every day. If you are ready to start, prayerfully say, “I don’t need
that….(insert the pattern you are ready to release.)That’s not me. I release it to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Dear God, in every moment and in all things, turn my mind and heart toward you. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 11 – Letting Go of the Fear of Being Alone – It is hard for me to imagine that Jesus ever wrestled with the fear of being alone. After all, he was a constant part of the God head which is, as the Trinity teaches us, always and ultimately about relationship. But when I look at Jesus in his agony in Gethsemane, when he begs his friends to stay awake with him and pray, I wonder if in his humanness he shared a bit of the fear of being alone that many of us feel from time to time. What lies behind that fear, or at least that discomfort? Is it that we feel fearful that something might happen that we could not handle on our own? Is it that we do not really enjoy our own company? Is it that we sometimes use the presence or demands of others to give shape and meaning to our lives and we don’t know how to allow that shape and meaning to arise from within us? Do we just love the people in our lives so much that when they are gone we grieve? Is it that we have allowed our relationships to be our true north, the set point toward which everything else is oriented, to such an extent that our inner compass is skewed without them and we can’t find our way home? Do we just need the simple support of a loving sounding board when all around us seems to be coming apart at the seams? Maybe a bit of all of that. At any rate, whatever drives us, the Spirit knows that time apart and alone creates a spiritual alchemy that allows different elements of our lives to come into focus, combine and become a new whole. One of the great movements of the spiritual life is from loneliness to solitude. Loneliness is filled with fear and absence. Solitude is filled with Presence and movement. There can sometimes be anguish in solitude because pain and loss are a part of who we are and that becomes clear in solitude, but, there is rarely a sense of abandonment or devastation. Rather, solitude emerges as solid and trustworthy and filled with consolations. Today, I invite you to consider whether or not you are fearful of being alone. What do you think lies at the heart of that fear? Try to find a space of time in the day when you can go apart and actually be alone. What is the mind chatter that dominates at first? How does it feel in your body? If fears arise, or even discomfort, then just notice that. You don’t need to engage with it or fix it. In prayer, take those fears to God and say “I don’t need that fear. That’s not me. I release it to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Gracious God, you are ever present with us and we are grateful. Help us today to make spaces to release our fears and to rest in your abiding presence. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
March 12 – Letting Go of Shame – Earlier we considered what it would be like to let go of the pain in our pasts. Now it is time to consider letting go of the shame than can sometimes accompany our hurts. Shame is not the same as guilt. Guilt is a feeling of sorrow, or even
horror and regret, over something that we have done that was wrong and had negative consequences. Guilt, while never easy to deal with, can be dealt with through confession and sometimes reparations. Shame, on the other hand, is the deep, often unnamed, feeling of sorrow, not for what we have done, but for who we are. Shame is what happens when we come to feel that we are somehow defective at our core. This, too, can be dealt with but it is harder and often less straightforward because it is often not specific. Nor is it something has a fix like confession or reparation. Dealing with shame is a process of releasing the layers of lies about ourselves and finding, beneath those layers, what is true and beautiful. While Jesus surely felt hurt in his journey, there is no indication that he ever felt shame. But we do. If we are to embrace our lives and missions fully, then that shame must be released so that it does not define or confine us. Take a moment today to consider whether or not you feel any shame about yourself, not guilt for wrong actions, but a general sense that you are somehow wrong, that you are broken or unfit, just because you are who you are. If you can identify any of that, ask yourself what is the root of that feeling. Does a particular instance come to mind? Take a moment to look at that incident. Don’t re-inhabit it. Just observe it. It is of the past and cannot hurt you anymore. Just notice. When you are ready, in prayer say “I don’t need that shame. That’s not me. I release it to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
March 13 – Letting Go of Meeting Your Needs in Wrong Ways – After his Spirit led days of fasting in the wilderness, where Jesus is tempted in a general ways, he is confronted with specific tests set up by the devil. Remember that in the Bible when we talk about ‘the devil’, we are talking about more than just Satan. The devil is a representation of all that seeks to divert us from the path of life, love and faithfulness. The devil, whether we think of him as a personified creature like a fallen or rebellious angel, or as an amalgamation of broken human tendencies that coalesce to do evil, the devil never has our best interest at heart. This is true even when the tests or lures seem to give us what we want or need. A key to identifying the devil is lies. The devil always lies and produces more lies. These lies can be especially alluring when we are weakened or needy. It is always our hungers that the devil attacks first, whether that it for love, security, acclaim, safety or sustenance. It is interesting in Jesus’ testing that the devil begins by enticing him to meet a real need, food, by an immoral means. The devil tempts Jesus to demonstrate that he is the Son of God by turning a stone into a loaf of bread. This was a test of the ego. Would he do what the devil suggested and thereby meet his need for food and declare his special status? Jesus refused, but maybe sometimes we don’t. Can you think of a time when you took a sketchy short cut to get something you wanted or needed? Can you think of a time when you put your values in your back pocket in order to look good to someone else? In what areas are you most prone to unholy compromise in your life? Where are your temptations strongest? What is it that you are really trying to get if you succumb to those temptations? Take a moment to think of an example of when you tried to meet a hunger in your life the wrong way. What happened? What did you learn about your go to tendencies to short cuts? When you are ready, take those tendencies to God in prayer saying, “I don’t need that short cut. That’s not me. I release it to you Lord. Thank you. Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you
pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Gracious God, help us today to live mindfully. Remind us that you meet our needs and we need look no further than you for our sustenance. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
March 14 – Letting Go of Easy Answers - When the devil confronted Jesus with the route to meet his need for bread and to display his true identity, he did that, as he often still does, by offering Jesus an easy answer to a complex situation. Yes, Jesus was famished but his hunger was purposeful. He had been sent to it by the Spirit. Was it time to break his fast? If it had been, the Spirit would have offered food no strings attached. Was it time for Jesus to test his powers to get what he wanted or needed? He didn’t think so. Jesus rightly knew that to say yes to the devil’s challenge would have been to accept an easy answer to a very complex situation. Sometimes we are tempted in the same way. We have a worthy goal or a legitimate need and the yet route to meet that goal or need seems too long and arduous. Isn’t there an easier way to meet our needs, we wonder. Isn’t there some trick to fill our hearts, meet our hungers, fill our pews? It is this desire for an easy way to meet our needs that leads to many a corrupt action, broken relationship or shallow faith practice. Easy answers can sometimes come as platitudes or old beliefs that stop us from going deeper. Sometimes we use them to corral our unruly emotions. When we find ourselves looking for an easy way out of our situations, especially if those situations have been Spirit led in the first place, it is rarely the guidance of the Spirit to which we are turning. One of the favorite wiles of the devil is the lure of the easy, pain free, effortless answer. Can you think of a time when you may have felt the lure of an easy answer to a complex problem? Can you think of a time when you tried to get a deep hunger filled by a wrong means? If you can think of an instance, what was the hunger for really? What did you choose to do to meet that need? How did that work out? When you are ready, see if you can identify a theme, or an easy platitude, that you turn to when you feel swamped by your needs. Take this to God in prayer saying, “I don’t need that too easy answer. That is not me. I release it to you, Lord. Thank you. Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Gracious God, only in you and in your ways do we find the answers we seek. Only in you are our hungers met. Help us today to accept no substitutes. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
March 15 – Letting Go of the Need to Win – Years ago after the University of Alabama’s legendary football coach, Bear Bryant, retired and died six months later, Bama’s football program entered into a period of turmoil. We lost a lot of games and an almost equal number of head coaches. During that period, to my chagrin, I learned that it was not actually football that I liked. It was winning. In one way or another most of us like to win. Whether it is an argument around the supper table, a candidate at the polls, an award at work, or simply being chosen as a partner in life, or as a church home on FaceBook. We are built with the desire to win on some level, or at least to be right and worthy. The problem
comes when our desire to win becomes out of hand competitiveness that really doesn’t care about much of anything other than being better than someone else. I once had a staff member who asked me for a well-deserved raise which I was happy to accommodate, just as she requested. It was a good financial year at the church and the session, in agreeing to her raise, decided that our whole staff deserved raises and each got the same proportional increase. My staff member who initiated the process was devastated by this. She felt that because everybody got an increase that hers was meaningless and demeaning. Nothing I could say could touch that hurt. She left our employ within a few months. The desire to win is, in some ways, the desire to be singled out as special, more special, most special. It is perfectly natural and a good thing to desire to be recognized for sharing ones gifts lavishly and well. It becomes a problem when the motivation behind the sharing is to somehow be a cut above others. This is a hard temptation to address in our culture where competitiveness and exceptionalism are built into the fabric of our way of life. It is not built into the fabric of the kingdom, however. Therein the problem lies. That need can lead to some pretty awful places. It can wreck relationships, communities and nations. When winning is everything, then others can become nothing. They only serve the purpose of our winning. In the wilderness, did Jesus have to face his need to best the devil? Probably not. It doesn’t seem that it was in his nature, although he certainly worked hard at winning some of his most enduring rabbinical debates. Still, whether Jesus wrestled with this one or not, many of us do from time to time. This is especially true in divided times when we all have sides and stick with them even if it kills us. Can you think of a time when winning or being right became a problem for you? What was the outcome? Have you ever been on the receiving end of someone else’s need to win or be right at your expense? What was that like? If you can sense in yourself the capacity for out of control competitiveness that harms you or others, take that to God in prayer saying, “I don’t need to always win. That’s not me. I release that to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
March 16 – Letting Go of Perfectionism- We all want to be the best version of ourselves. We want to live true and authentic lives filled with love, joy, peace, compassion and security. Mercifully, much of the time, with the help of the Spirit, we are able to do that. One of the quickest ways I know of drawing away from our best lives is to fall into the trap of perfectionism. This can be tricky because a spirit of perfectionism can easily masquerade as a dedication to excellence. Those are not the same thing, but they can look like the same thing sometimes. Perfectionism is the driving desire that we, those around us, and even our environment must meet our standards at all times or they, and we, are broken or worthless. Or at least incomplete, and a source of anxiety rather than gratitude. Spiritually speaking, perfectionism has its roots in a confusion about who is God and who is not. Lost in perfectionism, we unconsciously come to believe that we are responsible, in control and masters of our own universes. When we, or that which we try to control, do not comply we are distraught and miserable. This is inevitable because we have taken a role for which we are totally unsuited: creator of all things. In reality we are not our own creators. We are not masters of the universe. We can barely master ourselves on a good day. So thinking that we should be able to do that in most circumstances is a sure way to misery. Especially when the idea of perfection is perpetually a moving target. We desire the perfect home, get it just
like we want it, and suddenly find that we think it is not right at all. We want to make a perfect presentation and work on it until we can hardly think of anything else. Then when we pause a beat too long on one fact, we beat ourselves up for days. We want to create a perfect loving family life and obsess about each detail only to come unglued at the breakfast table and throw the pancakes across the room. Perfection is not ours for the grabbing. Perfectionism is thinking that it is. Now, granted, the scripture tells us that Jesus calls us to ‘be perfect as our father in heaven is perfect.’ That is an unfortunate translation that has led to millennia of pain and sorrow. The word used is not the word for without flaw. It is the word for wholeness, or completeness. Jesus wants us to live whole and complete lives as who we are, just as the Father does. Wow. The call is not to be flawless. The call is to be wholly who we are. Can you identify a tendency to perfectionism in yourself? Do you deride yourself mercilessly for your failings in your own eyes? Do you rarely feel satisfied with the way things are? Do you rarely feel satisfied with the way you are? Has this perfectionism had an effect on your relationships or well-being? If so, changing this pattern may be a challenge, but it can be done. When you are ready, take a moment to quiet your heart and mind and go to God in prayer saying, “I do not need this perfectionism. It is not me. I release it to you, Lord. Thank you. Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Gracious God, we are so grateful that you love us just as we are. Help us, today, grounded in your love, to live wholly and completely. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
March 17 – Letting Go of Transactional Prayer – Today is our youngest granddaughter Melody’s fourth birthday. Due to pandemic, and the restrictions on our lives from it, we have not seen her for almost three of those years. How can that be? During this time, I have spent time praying for the little sprite that I know only through FaceTime. Penelope has some memories of us, but Melody really doesn’t. Often my prayers for my granddaughters are very specific. “Please God, keep them safe. Do not let the family get covid. Make sure that they wear their jackets. Don’t let them get stung by a bee. Please find them a house they can afford. Don’t let the girls be bullied at pre- school. Don’t let them become bullies. Please let us come for a visit this year.” Those dear prayers, I am certain God relishes and honors. There is, however, another way to pray. It is a way that is not as fraught with drama or confusion when answers are different from requests. Most of the prayers we pray are transactional in nature. Dear God please do this or that for us or others. Heal someone. Comfort someone. Find a job for someone. Take someone off a destructive path. Those kind of prayers are wonderful and intimate. They are also often prayers that are framed by our own perceptions of what is right and best for ourselves and others. Sometimes we do not know what is right and best. Sometimes we have no idea what God is up to. Sometimes we want God to be like a fortune teller at a carnival where we drop in a coin and receive a card that says you have been granted three wishes. Mercifully God is not as much transactional with us as relational. In the mystery of God’s grace, when our transactional prayers align with the greatest good for all involved, they are met with the kind of yeses that we recognize and celebrate. Other times when the outcomes do not come as we intend or desire, God still answers with the great yes of accompaniment. Sometimes when I don’t have a clue as to what is right and best for those I love, or for myself, I pray in a visual way.
I imagine the person as a beautiful small pottery cup. Then I see in my mind’s eye, God filling that cup with all the goodness and love that God has ever felt for that person. The cup completely overflows with that limitless grace. In those times my prayer is no longer transactional. I am not asking for something. I am witnessing something. I am in the midst of something. A part of something that God is already and always doing. This type of prayer, at least for me, brings a profound sense of joy and fulfillment because it bypasses my ego almost completely. If you would like to release the idea, for just a moment, that prayer is primarily transactional, I invite you to go to God now, as an empty vessel. One by one release your worries or needs. You might say, “I don’t need you to do anything for me that you are not already doing. I release all need to you, Lord. Thank you.” Then hold your empty heart up to God and watch the love pour in and fill you to the brim. Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: God of Love, open my heart to receive with gratitude what you have for me today. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
March 18 – Letting Go of Using God’s Name in Vain – In God’s foundational communication with God’s people, the Ten Commandments, God asks us to respect our relationship with God and never to trivialize it or use God as a tool to accomplish ends that God does not intend and that simply reinforce our own broken ego. To assume that God loves only what we love, and hates all that we hate, is the height of arrogance and a vain drenched misuse of God’s name. When the devil confronted Jesus with his first specific test, at its heart it was the lure to use God’s name, God’s power, as a means to an end that was not in accord with either Jesus’ values or God’s will for him in that moment. Rather than a word encouraging us to stop cursing, the command not to use God’s name in vain is about the very nature of our relationship with God. Do we trivialize that relationship by attaching God’s name to things that are contrary to God’s nature? Do we vainly use the name to try to get what we want with little thought to the greatest good for all involved? Do we want to turn stones to bread as a magic trick that keeps God on a string to be manipulated to meet our needs or make us look powerful? Sometimes we do. Jesus, however, refused to bite that hook. With awareness we can refuse as well. Today, notice all of the ways that you use God’s name, either aloud or in your mind. Do you notice a tendency in yourself to trivialize the name, to speak it with little thought or respect? Do you notice that you go to God with requests that do not really align with who you know God to be and what you know God to value? Do you find that you speak of God in a manipulative way? If so, each time you notice that you are trivializing God, pause and pray, “I don’t need to trivialize you, God. That is not me. I release that tendency to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Gracious God, help me today to worship you rightly and never take you for granted. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 19 – Letting Go of Money as Security – The powerful 20th century theologian/philosopher Jacques Ellul once said that the idolatry of money was the central
idolatry of the 20th century. Nearly a quarter of the way into the 21st, not much has changed in that regard. Money still rules many of our choices. Often it even rules choices that God alone should rule. We may check our stock portfolio’s obsessively to see ‘how we are doing.’ We may agonize over a major purchase as if our lives depended on it. We may feel dissatisfied with our lives depending on how our bank accounts look. We may live in fear of the next bill or invoice because we feel not only that we lack resources to meet our basic needs, but that we, therefore, are lacking in and of ourselves. In the years of raising a family we may feel insecure as parents if we can’t purchase a home or start a college fund. In retirement years we may lie awake at night fearful that we will outlive our savings. In each of those situations, at least a part of us, has placed our security and wellbeing in our wealth. Just like for some of us who were alive in the sixties, in Jesus’ day ‘bread’ was often used as a synonym for money. In the Lord’s prayer ‘our daily bread’ was about our total provision, not just about lunch. In the wilderness, when the devil tempts Jesus to turn a stone into bread, we can think of that temptation as the temptation to do whatever it takes to create wealth and security. Jesus refused to use unholy means to do that. Mercifully, most of the time, most of us, refuse to do that as well. But still, many of us do find ourselves confusing our money with our security. We even use the word security to describe some of our assets. The problem is that, while in some ways, money is the bread of life, it is never our source of security ultimately. It cannot be. It is a thing, a resource, not a god, even if we often serve it as if it were God. When we are not in actual lack, we still often let our need for financial security take an undue place in our lives, eating away at our energy, our relationships and our real spiritual longings. Today, ponder the role of money in your life. Does having enough, or fear of not having enough, have an effect on your emotions? Does money fear ever leak into your relationships? How does it affect them? Do you sometimes feel ruled by your financial state? If so, today, I invite you to notice these emotions. When you feel a sense of fear or lack around money or provision, pause and in prayer tell God, “I don’t need this fear. It is not me. I release it to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Gracious God we thank you for enough for today. Help us to rest in your bounty. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
March 20 – Letting Go of Spent Habits and Traditions – Yesterday I spoke with a colleague who is a pastor of a small church of 20 members in an area where potential for growth seems limited. Still, the church is vibrant, loving and committed to each other. Apparently they have less commitment to the kinds of changes that might make their outreach more effective. One of the elders told my friend (which is what initiated our conversation) that they “only wanted to reach out to mature Christians who knew how to do things the right way.” My friend was aghast. She pressed her dear elder for just what ‘the right way’ looked like. She hemmed and hawed but the long and short of it was that it had to do with flowers, music, Bible translation, and worship times. My friend and I just held the phone in silence with that for a few moments. We knew the feeling. And we knew the barb on the end of that hook. Each of us knows the power that we can invest in our beloved traditions and how hard it can be to know when the line has been crossed from holy habits to idolatry. As anyone who has ever failed to dead head a garden painfully knows, if things
that are spent are not removed they can suck all the life out of what remains. Now, of course, the problem is not flowers and the worship hour. The problem is the power we invest into those things. This is true not just in our church life. It is true in our personal lives as well. We have habits and traditions that to tamper with can cause emotional havoc in us. My cousin, wept to me of fatigue, after working her fingers to the bone on Thanksgiving. She had stayed up most of the night to prepare 8 separate side dishes because her grown children were coming home and it would “not be Thanksgiving without those dishes.” I asked her if she had to do them all. With tears in her eyes she said, “I don’t know which ones are unnecessary.” Maybe the habits and traditions that can cause us problems are not quite like that, but most of us have a sense of things needing to be done the right way. Take a moment today to ask yourself what habits or traditions have begun to rule your life. How important are they in the grand scheme? Do these things give to you, or take from you? What would it feel like to release them with thanks and see what fills in the spaces left behind? If you can identity one or two habits or traditions that you want to begin to release, (it is a process!) imagine that tradition clearly in your mind. Feel all that you feel about it and about releasing it. Then go to God in prayer saying, “I don’t need that. It is not me. I release it to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Gracious God, sometimes we lose you and the thread of your grace by clinging to things that no longer serve us or others. Help us today to hold our certainties with an open hand and release to you anything that holds us back from the fullness of our lives. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
March 21 – Letting Go of Anger – Sometimes when we do the spiritual work of letting go, our first response is tearful relief. Sometimes, however, it is seething anger. After all, we have each constructed our lives in a way that we think serves our goals and values. The problem is that we don’t always know what those goals and values really are because we have adapted them from others expectations of us or our own need to survive difficulty. Sometimes, too, if we have experienced a lot of pain, abuse or rejection in our lives, our coping strategies have served as scabs over wounds. We think those scabs will protect us from reinfection or bleeding out. At first they do just that. But after a while all they do is keep the wounds underground where they cannot easily be brought into the healing light. Nine times out of ten when we experience anger it is because something or someone has knocked off a scab that we think we cannot do without. The wounds underneath our anger are as many and diverse as there are moments in our lives. But when those wounds are touched the reaction is common to most of us. Granted, we may feel, express or repress anger in different ways, still it is always there in each of us. It is God given. We even see examples of God and Jesus feeling and expressing anger. Surely when the devil tempted Jesus, he must have felt anger. Yet he did not allow it to derail him. Anger is intended as a release valve, a way of using energy to return to balance. The problem comes when anger is misplaced, misused or becomes an addiction that numbs us to what is really going on with us. For example, perhaps we feel a chronic insecurity about our abilities and our boss calls us down unfairly. We can’t defend ourselves, or don’t think we can, so we seethe the rest of the day then come home and kick the dog who jumps up on us in excited greeting. We just
can’t take being jumped on one more time. While anger can be a rational motivator in the presence of injustice, it is rarely an avenue for redressing injustice. Kicking the dog will do nothing but increase the pain and turn anger inward where it can fester until the wound is touched again. Today, think about what triggers your anger most often. I suspect there will be some things that ‘get you every time.’ Maybe it is when you are challenged and it takes you back to situations when you did not feel seen or heard as a child. Maybe it is when you are shamed and it takes you to deeply held feelings of inferiority. Maybe it is when you see others being hurt or abused, or when you can’t seem to achieve a goal you have set for yourself, or when you are interrupted repeatedly, or when you hear the voice of a political opponent, or when the faucet won’t stop leaking. It can be anything. Choose one area in which you feel like your anger is not helpful. Look at it carefully. Why do you think this situation triggers you so powerfully? What is the wound it has touched? Is anger the best way to respond to that wound? If not, go to God in prayer saying, “I do not need this anger. It’s not me. I release it to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Gracious God, help me today to live in peace, to release hostility and to find in its place the healing I really need. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
March 22 – Letting Go of Lies that Make Us Feel Better, but are Still Lies – When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, he came face to face with the Father of Lies, the devil. The insidious thing about the devil is that he can make lies look attractive and like good common sense. God tells us in the Ten Commandments not to bear false witness. God is not talking about lying in general. God is first and foremost talking about not lying in court. God knew that human community could not survive without a bedrock trust in the judicial system. Still, lying, in general, is discouraged in the Bible and Christian tradition. There are a number of nuances to that discouragement, for example to save a life. Still, our faith family knows that lying diminishes us and causes harm to the fabric of community. And it is epidemic in our society these days. People lie to get an advantage. People lie to look good or to justify behaviors that are essentially unjustifiable. People even lie when it would be in their own best interest to tell the truth. And, as Dr. House said in the old TV show, everybody does it. From the point of view of spiritual growth, perhaps the most difficult lies to relinquish are those that make us feel better, at least momentarily. Usually those kinds of lies are those that are designed to improve our self-esteem or estimation in the eyes of others. We may pad our resume to look better to our boss or emphasis modest success over the hard road to get to it. We may tell our teachers that the dog ate our homework. We may claim a little extra on our taxes or tell ourselves that all charitable giving counts toward our tithe. Those small fudges, and others like them, may seem harmless, or victimless. In reality, over time, however, they can corrode our ability to distinguish truth from lies or find the courage to face the consequences of the actions, inactions or circumstances of our lives. More insidious than the little shrugged off lies that make us seem bigger, are the inner lies that keep us feeling smaller. We often tell ourselves lies about ourselves. If we have a setback we may say, “I’m such a failure.” If we want to try something new we may say, “I just can’t learn that.” If we hope for reconciliation in a relationship, we may say, “I really blew it and it's too far gone to mend.” These kinds of lies,
while not making us consciously feel better, do in reality make us feel better by giving us an out to avoid the risk of failure or rejection. Think today about any instances in which you are prone to pad the truth, or refuse it outright. What is beneath that tendency? Choose just one tendency that you would like to release. Take it to God in prayer saying, “I don’t need that lie. It is not me. I release it to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Gracious God, you are the Way, the Life, the Truth. Help us today to live confidently in the truth. Let us never use it as a weapon on others or an excuse for cruelty. Rather, let us rest in the love that is at the heart of all truth and experience the healing and freedom that comes from it. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
March 23 – Letting Go of Manipulating Others – Sometimes we feel so powerless or vulnerable that we believe we cannot get our needs met directly and honestly. When that occurs, we often resort to manipulation which is also a kind of lie. If we grew up in a chaotic environment where love was conditional at best, we may have learned to get our needs met by driving ourselves to excel or by becoming quiet and disappearing into the woodwork. If we are insecure in our family relationships we may choose behaviors designed more to gain affection that to give it. If we are determined to get a new promotion at work we may manipulate the boss with flattery or subtle put downs of others who might be in line for the job. In our national life, we often see those in power, or those who seek power, manipulate the emotions of people to gain or keep power. January 6 was a classic example of that. One of the dangers of using manipulation to get what we think we want is that it can become a way of life and eventually blind us to what we really need and who we really are. We are no longer enough in our own eyes. God is no longer enough in our eyes. So we have to take matters in hands to get what we want. Suddenly the big lie is just a means to an end. Now granted, most of us don’t live our lives on a giant stage where our words or tweets can move armies. Each of us does, I am sure, know what it feels like to try to indirectly influence others to our will. Maybe we want a new sofa and so we butter up our spouse with a special supper before we broach the subject. Maybe when the answer is no, we turn on tears, or the silent treatment, or start slamming doors to the garage. All of those actions can be manipulations. Most of us know how to do that, at least to some extent. If you are ready to release the too easy manipulations that actually distance you from intimacy, integrity and getting your real needs met, take a moment to see if you can identify times when you manipulate others. It can even happen with body language or a change in voice quality. Think about an instance of that behavior until it becomes clear in your mind. How does it feel to see yourself behaving in that way? If it doesn’t feel good, go to God in prayer saying, “I do not need to manipulate to get my needs met. That is not me. I release that to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Gracious God, today I ask for your help to be open, honest and loving in all of my relationships. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 24 – Letting Go of Our Idols – An idol is simply anything that is not God that we serve as if it were God. Because of his intense time of prayer and fasting, when confronted by the devil, Jesus seemed very clear about what was God and what was not. A showy demonstration of his status by turning a stone to bread, was not of God. Soothing his hunger by compromising just this once was not of God. He was clear about that, but we often are not. The problem comes when the things we serve, out of love or necessity, take up the place of gods in our lives. They begin to make our decisions for us, often with no thought at all. Maybe our job requirements take up so much time and energy that we lose our health and our families but we think there is no other way. Maybe we say ‘family comes first’ and therefore decide that a fall festival or a child’s soccer match is more important than worship. Or maybe we decide that keeping the peace at home is more important than confronting immoral or racist speech or bullying actions. Any number of things can come to rule us. Many of them are not moral evils, just good things, or neutral things, that are used the wrong way. Some of our idols can be wonderful beloved things that we should attend to with great care, like our families. They just make poor gods. Think for a moment about how you make your decisions and set your priorities. What are those things that really rule you? Are there things or people that have taken up an outsized or unholy role in your life? One of the best tests to see if something is an idol is to see how you feel about giving it up or changing its hold on you. This will surface your idols and the addictive hold they can often have on us. Today take a few moments to consider what things your serve doggedly. Have those things taken over your moral choices? Do those things serve you in return or is it one way? What would your life be like without servitude to those things (not without the thing itself, but without dependence on the thing)? How do you feel if you thinking about changing your relationship with the things that unduly rule you? If you are ready to begin the process of taking those idols from their pedestals, try not to allow yourself to become afraid. Just observe what is happening in you and, if you are ready, go to God in prayer saying, “I do not need that. That is not me. I release this to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Gracious God, help me today to put no one and nothing above you in my heart. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
March 25 – Letting Go of the Kingdoms of the World – The devil’s second temptation of Jesus was the temptation to worldly power achieved by immoral means. By definition, bending the knee to the Father or All Lies, is immoral. It takes us away from our core and our Source and allows that which is evil to manipulate and control us. How tempting this must have been to Jesus! Power and acclaim are powerful motivators, especially if we think that we have something important to share. Sometimes worldly power and achievement can be potent lures for us too. Maybe we do not aspire to political power, or the kind of authority that the devil dangled before Jesus, but we are not immune to the desire to have access to the things that worldly power can offer. Maybe we want to preserve our unquestioned assumptions of exceptionalism. Maybe we want to feel like winners. Maybe we want people to do as we say without question. Maybe we want enough money to meet our needs is the glossy ways that the ads and TV shows depict. Maybe we want the latest
gadget. Maybe we just want a little more control over our own lives. Whatever the lure may be, you can be certain that the devil knows exactly where each of us is most vulnerable and just how to bait the hook. Jesus saw all that was wrong in his world and wanted to remake his nation and his people. How hard it must have been to reject the easy way to that end. Maybe he even thought that it could be a needed compromise for a greater good. Thanks be to God, he did not fall to that temptation or where would we be today? Still, we often do fall to those kinds of lures. We find ourselves thinking that a little compromise of our values here or there is no real problem. Or we find ourselves temporarily distracted from our life’s, or church’s, real mission by the shiny object of success or privilege. In those moments the easy way can feel like the right or the only way. Think about the times that you may have let the values of the world define your goals and even your ethics. Have there been circumstances in which you set aside your values because something sparkled a little more brightly outside of them? Are there things that you want that, if you stopped to think, you know are not good for you or in the best interest of others? Where are you most tempted to take on the values of the world as your own? How has that tendency served you? How has it stoked pain or dissatisfaction in you? If you are ready to begin to release the lures of the world, think of one specific lure that has some power in you. Visualize it clearly and take it to God in prayer saying, “I do not need this. This is not me. I release it to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Gracious God, focus me today on your kingdom and what is good for all. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
March 26 – Letting Go of Jealousy – Jealousy is a powerful emotion that can set in motions dynamics in the human heart that are hard to turn around. Think of Jacob’s jealousy of his brother Esau’s special relationship with their father. That jealousy led to lies, stealing, deception and a total rupture in the fabric of the family for many, many years. Joseph’s brothers jealousy of their brother’s status with their father is another case in point that led to slavery and pain. Ahab wanted Nabboth vineyard and people died. David wanted Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, and generations of death and destruction followed. Even in our day, intense enough jealousy can fracture families and lead to death. More often for us, for good and ill, jealousy does not lead to quite those severe consequences. Remember that jealousy and covetousness are not the same thing. In jealousy we want something someone else has, or we fear that someone will take from us something we have. Covetousness is bigger than that. Covetousness is wanting someone else’s life. It is so pervasive that in its throes we despise our life and all the gifts God has given us. For today, though, let’s think just about the relatively simple issue of jealousy. “I want something you have and it is making me miserable and I hate you.” Or “I think you are taking away from me something vital to me and I am miserable and I hate you.” In his time in the wilderness, could Jesus have felt jealousy of the power that had been granted to the devil? Or at least the power the devil claimed had been granted to him? The devil said he had all of the kingdoms of the world under his control and could give that power to any he chose. If only the chosen would bend the knee to him. Could Jesus have wanted that power with a fierceness that approached jealousy? His own power was as yet untested, so I guess maybe he could have,
but there is no indication of it. He stood very firm against the devils wiles. He was not falling for the lure of illegitimate power and illegitimate gain. It is harder for us. There is much in our culture that stokes our jealousies and the hatreds that they spawn. We hear it in the thinly disguised political rhetoric of white supremacy. “This is my land and you have no right to claim a share in it.” “I am better than you and I will never let go of what is mine.” Those are statement of a jealous insecure heart. That is one of the sneaky things about nursing jealousy. It always leads to more insecurity and fear. Our hold on what we want is just never quite firm enough. Think for a moment today about whether jealously plays a role in your life or in your discontents. Do you look at what others have and feel dissatisfied with what you have? Do you look at your spouse and fear that he or she might be swayed to another? Do you look at your child packing for college and feel, beneath the sadness and gratitude, a surge of jealousy for those who will share her life now and shape her thinking? If you notice that tendency in yourself and would like to begin to release it, go to God in prayer saying, “I do not need that. It is not me. I release this longing to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Gracious God, I release to you all my jealousies. Replace them all, O God, with a heart overflowing with gratitude. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
March 27 – Letting Go of Bitterness – Sometimes life is hard. Sometimes it can even be cruel. Sometimes our losses pile up, our dreams seem unrealized and our relationships unfulfilling. Sometimes the image of how we thought our life would and should be comes crashing down, bowed to the wild will of a microbe we cannot even see. In the book of Ruth, a beautiful pastoral story of a family in crisis and how God remains faithful, Naomi, Ruth’s mother in law, becomes completely consumed by the pain of her life. She has good reason. She had to flee her homeland as a refugee to find food during a time of famine. Her husband and both of her sons die, leaving her destitute with two daughters in law to see about. As a matter of fact, the hardships of her life so overwhelm her that she even changes her name to Mara, which means bitterness. In the midst of all of that agony she vacillates between anger with God and trying to figure out how she might have caused her own tragedies. She is a mess. Unable to find a way out emotionally or physically, she decides to go home to Bethlehem to see if some kinsman will help her out. Even as she makes her decision she carries bitterness as her new identity. That is not the end of the story for Naomi. Nor does bitterness have to be the end of the story for us either. Not unless we want it to be. Bitterness changes our spiritual lives, all but halting our progress. Bitterness changes our brain chemistry making gratitude, the great antidote to pain, a near impossibility. Bitterness changes how we see the world and acts like a gray film over everything that happens. We see what supports our bitterness and dismiss what does not. Our energy goes to our pain and away from our healing. That is just the way that it is. And most of us know, from time to time, the deadly consequences of choosing bitterness as a life position. We know how to change our name to Mara and live up to it. Jesus, apparently, did not know how to do that. He did not even succumb to bitterness on the cross. Rather he asked God to forgive all those who had hurt him claiming they didn’t know what they were doing. Can the release of bitterness actually be the cure that allows goodness to flow in us
again as well? Can a deliberate practice of releasing bitterness be the medicine that allows us to weather hard times to come without them coming to define us? I think so. Take a moment right now to breathe deeply. Ask yourself if you have any bitter root inside of you that is causing you harm and keeping you stuck. Are there any people toward whom you feel bitter? Are there any old hurts that still feel bitter inside you? Do you think you might be ready to begin to release that bitterness? If so, think of a specific instance about which you feel bitter. Take that to God in prayer saying, “I do not need these feelings of bitterness. They are not me. I release the whole situation to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Gracious God, replace all bitterness in me with compassion and forgiveness. Thank you. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
March 28 – Letting Go of Powerlessness – Granted, we are not all powerful. We do not set the stars in their courses or cause the waves to crash upon the sand. We do not even control the number of our days. We cannot, as an act of sovereign will, fix our country, our politics, our churches or even our own lives. This, however, does not mean that we are powerless. Far from it. We are the body of Christ and Jesus told us that signs and wonders even greater than his were ours for the taking as we live life in him. Perhaps we to do not, with a word, restore eyesight to a blind person, but we can, by love and care filled teaching, shed divine light that leads to a new kind of sight. Perhaps we cannot stand in front of a mirror and claim significant shrinkage in our thighs, but indeed we can make choices that help that desire come to pass. We may not be able to shield our children from harm, but we can teach them to be resilient and faithful. We may not be able to force faith on others, but we can love them in to wondering if maybe we are on to something. One of the devils wiliest tricks is to convince us that we are powerless, that we cannot do something, that we cannot do much of anything. Perhaps that subtle undermining was at work when he tempted Jesus with authority over the kingdoms of the world. After all, that temptation would only be alluring if Jesus did not already know his own power. The discomfort of feeling powerless has led to many a wrong choice with disastrous consequences in many of our lives. Ironically, the feeling of powerlessness is not always something that we shun. Sometimes we choose powerlessness as a life position and an excuse for not doing what we are called to do and not living the full lives for which we are created. Power may have its limits in our lives, but powerlessness is just a lie and a flimsy excuse a lot of the time. We can’t do everything. We can’t fix everything. But we can do something. We have been made able. The New Testament letters make one thing abundantly clear. We each have the capacity to accomplish what God wants accomplished. God knows us before God calls us. God has factored in our stupidity and failings from the beginning. As the old saying goes, ‘If God calls you to it, God will bring you through it.” Are there any areas of your life over which you are feeling especially powerless today? As you think of those circumstances, do you think that you actually need more power or do you just think you would feel better if you had more power? Are there any circumstances where you claim powerlessness so that you will not have to act or learn new ways to behave? If so, and you would like to begin to release the lies and excuses of your powerlessness, go to God in prayer saying, “I do not need to feel powerless. That is not me. I release that feeling to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close
your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Gracious God of all Power and Gentleness, help me today to trust in you in all things. Help me to use the power you give me for good and help me relinquish the desire to lord power over others. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
March 29 – Letting Go of the Concept of Enemy – I am writing this reflection while looking out at the Gulf of Mexico in my quiet little village where I can go for many hours without seeing a car pass. Meanwhile tanks are moving from Belarus toward Kyiv in Ukraine. Southern cities in the country have already fallen. They are surrounded apart from a small border with Poland. Pastor friends in the region are sending out pleas for prayer as they search for parishioners that work at bombed Ukrainian bases while also trying in vain to access money from the shutdown banking system in order to prepare to aid refugees that will soon stream to their churches. Meanwhile, bombs blast and a people who really did not believe it would ever come to this must now deal with the invasion of their country and the humanitarian crisis that will inevitably follow. So parents, not knowing what else to do, pin little cards with their blood types to their children’s sweatshirts. My heart is so heavy. Humanity is a warring thing. Why? The reasons are many and often the stated reasons are not the actual reasons. We all know from Junior High School that bullies bully out of a gaping hole in their own lives. Later in Jesus’ ministry, when he sits before the large crowd and gives his earth shattering speech that we call the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke, he recognizes the tendency of the human family to get unmet needs met at the expense of others and to blame those others for what they get. He understands that enemy is a word designed to initiate a proscribed and hostile response. It is natural. Last night when I heard the Russian president wave his nuclear arsenal in the face of the west, I felt an animosity rise up in me as if from nowhere. Animosity and fear. This morning when I heard from my pastor colleagues about the realities on the ground, that animosity mingled with deep sadness and I wondered what it might look like in our world if we heeded Jesus call to give up the notion of enemy. What would the world look like if we released the need to win or retaliate and replaced that powerful negative energy with active love and profound prayers. Can I pray from Mr. Putin while my colleague searches for his parishioners with bombs still falling? I confess to you, that I cannot do it right now. I come close to it. I see Mr. Putin’s and my own shared humanity. I see that we have a common divine parent. I see that his brokenness mirrors my own only on a global and dangerous scale. And yet, today, with tanks rolling, I cannot yet pray for one who I have been carefully taught from childhood with drills of getting under my desk and how to tuck and roll in the presence of a nuclear attack to see as my enemy. Especially today. What would it be like for God’s family if we gave up the notion of enemy? Heaven I suppose. On a more personal front, what would it be like for us to give up our personal enemies, the person who hurt us, the person who hurt our child, the ones who have callously damaged our self-esteems, the ones who demean and degrade us. What would it be to release their hold on us? After all when we hold on to them as enemy, it is they that really hold on to us. What if we just let it go. What if we set the terms of our relationship not based on the hurt we have felt or fear, and rather on sharing the
compassion we ours often need so desperately? It would be counter cultural indeed. It would shake the mountains like Jesus’ sermon did. It would open a pathway to the kingdom. If there is someone in your life or in the world that you think of as enemy (whether you use that word or not, perhaps the word opponent or opposition helps that come clear) and you are ready to begin to release that one’s hold on your heart and energy, go to God in prayer saying, “I do not need to carry these feelings about…. That is not me. I release it to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Help us, Gracious God, to see the world and its people through the lens of your own love and forgiveness. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
March 30 – Letting God of the Desires of the Ego – It has taken me many, many years to learn that the desires of my ego and the desires of my heart are not the same thing. In Psalm 37, the psalmist tells us that when we delight in the Lord, that God will give us the desires of our hearts. For years I tended to ignore the first part of that verse and focus solely on the last part. If I wanted my 6th grade boyfriend to give me a charm bracelet with a heart on it, I asked God for it and stated this promise as a guarantee. Later, if I wanted an irretrievably broken relationship to be magically mended, I asked God for it, claiming it was the desire of my heart. If I wanted my lung capacity to be restored, I asked for it with passionate earnestness. There is nothing wrong with those asks. God wants us to bring all that is going on with us into our relationship in prayer. God is, however, under no obligation to give us what we think we want if it is inconsistent with God’s intention for us or will somehow bring harm to us or others. My real breakthrough came when I realized that the desires of my ego, those things I wanted fiercely to manage my emotions, were not often the true deep yearnings of my soul. My heart, my soul, is tucked in God. Therefore, what my heart truly yearns for is always what God truly intends. This is true for each of us. Our hearts long for what is truest about who we are, who God made us. Our hearts long for closer communion with God and for the light of the love of God to transform our broken ways and broken lives. How do we know what all of that means for us concretely? We attend to the first phrase of the psalmists promise. Dedicate our lives to delighting in God, to finding our deepest joy in God and God’s ways. When we do that, our deepest longings are always and perfectly met. Perhaps when the devil tempted Jesus with the lure of worldly glory, Jesus already knew that that was not the desire of his true heart. Perhaps he always knew that the things of the ego can never satisfy a heart that is restless until it finds its rest in God. Surely he did. It is not always so easy for us. Take a moment to examine your desires. Are they coming from your deepest heart or are they arising from a hurt or insecurity that you are trying to manage? If the later, and you are ready to let that go, go to God in prayer, saying, “I do not need….. It is not necessary to me. It is not who I am. I release it to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Gracious God, today I ask you to fulfill the desires of my deep heart with a deepened experience of your presence and your love surrounding me. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
March 31 – Letting Go of Literal Mindedness – In confronting the schemes of the devil in his temptations, Jesus turns to the Hebrew scriptures in order to find power and justification for his resistance. When confronted with the lures of the world’s glories, he reaches into Deuteronomy to find a verse that encourages God’s people to serve God and no other. It was the perfect verse for the perfect moment. We would expect no less from Jesus. We, however, are often not quite so adept at seeing the scriptures truth and uses. Often we become locked and lost in a literal interpretation of a story or instruction that was never intended to be taken literally. Or at least never intended to be taken solely literally. When we do that, the scripture can be very easy to dismiss as mere myth or some kind of man made wish fulfillment. People locked in that mindset say things to me like “What kind of awful God sets his son up to be murdered just so that that God won’t have to be mad anymore?” Or, “I’ve prayed for healing for years and I have 6 months to live. It’s all a cruel joke.” Or, “I actually plucked out my eye because I couldn’t handle my sexual thoughts and now I’m just a blind asshole (sorry for the language but this really happened.)” When we cannot look beneath the surface of what the Bible tells us, we cannot expect to either understand it or find its rich relevance for our daily lives. Sometimes worse than that, we can pull the verses out of context and use them as false weapons on each other and ourselves. As one of my seminary professors once said, “The text without context is just a con.” We have seen the effects of such cons throughout the centuries of the churches life. We’ve executed people with differing interpretations. We’ve told slaves not to resist. We’ve burned witches. We’ve sent gay Christians and their families fleeing from our churches. All this and more we do in service to literal mindedness. It just won’t do. It will not do any longer. It makes our hearts weak and our love cold. It allows us to claim that our point of view is actually God’s Or worse, it can even in our minds, make a god of our point of view. Only pain can come from this. If you find yourself stuck in literal mindedness about the Scriptures, or if you find yourself ruminating over what a family member said to you word for word apart from the whole context of the relationship, and are ready to become a bit less stuck, go to God in prayer saying, “I do not need this. It is not me. I release my limiting beliefs to you, Lord. Thank you.” Close your reflection by saying aloud, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;…because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you…Do not fear for I am with you.”
Prayer: Gracious God help us today to fall more in love with you than with our own opinions about you. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.