Safe Harbor Presbyterian Church
Lent Daily Devotions 2023
Daily Devotions for Lent. February 22, 2023 to March 31, 2023 Safe Harbor Presbyterian Church
Making Room Devotions for Lent 2023 …. Eugenia A Gamble
Throughout the centuries of the church’s common life, it has been a practice during the holy season of Lent (the forty days plus Sundays leading up to Easter) for the faithful to ‘give up something’ as a sign of devotion. Often those commitments fade fast. Even if we do remain steadfast, it becomes 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 his baptism, (that glorious moment during which the Spirit came to him, assured him of his holy status and strengthened him for his mission,) the Spirit drove him into the wilderness to grapple with his identity and do spiritual battle with anything that sought to undermine him. Fasting was the spiritual tool that he chooses to help him face and face down anything that could derail his ministry and mission. It can be a potent spiritual tool for us as well. Fasting is not a way to flex our will power, or to lose a couple of pounds. 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.
So, this year, I am asking that each day you choose to ‘fast.’ If you feel led to fast from a food or the relationship with that food that is damaging you somehow, feel free. Twinkies be gone! But my hunch is that for most of us there are other things with more damaging power over us from which we would benefit by abstaining. So, each day this year, I will invite you to fast from a particular mindset, habit or pattern of behavior. If one day’s challenge doesn’t speak to you, thank God for that grace and ponder it a little anyway. If another day’s challenge is particularly difficult, you might want to return to it several times, or even stay with it for a week or more. Let the Spirit be your guide.
At the close of each day’s reflection, take a moment to move your hand to your heart and then out and above your head like you a tossing something to someone else and say, “I release this tendency to you, O God. I do not need it anymore.” Then conclude with the daily prayer. You may find that you want the thing back and immediately scramble for it. That is natural. Each time you release, even briefly, you are creating inner territory for God to more fully claim in you. God will take you where you need to go at the pace you can maintain. You may be assured of that. May you have a holy fast!
February 22 - Ash Wednesday - Easy Answers - Luke 4:1-4 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” (Deut. 8:3)
Jesus is famished. Do you recall what that feels like? How it can take over your thoughts, and muddle your vision and determination? Do you recall a time that you felt like you would do anything for something to eat or drink (or maybe a cigarette, or a drink, or a word of love from someone you were beginning to think didn’t really love you? Do you recall how frantic you felt? That is what Jesus is feeling here. And, of course, along comes the devil with an easy answer to his problem. “Do this one thing for me and I will fix it. Imagine what Jesus might have felt and thought.” Can you imagine Jesus’ inner dialogue with God when confronted with that temptation? “I know, Father, that this fast is purposeful? But haven’t I done enough? Couldn’t I do even more with a little extra physical stamina? Isn’t it time to test my powers to get what I want or need?” Perhaps he went through all of those natural thoughts. 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 or key to fill our hearts, meet our hungers? It is this desire for an easy way to meet needs that leads to many a corrupt practice, broken relationship, and shallow faith practice. 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 (often cloaked in platitudes that may sound holy.) Take a moment to examine your heart for this pattern, then release it to God.
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 me today to accept no substitutes. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
February 23 - Worldly Power - Matthew 4:5-7 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Jesus Deut. 6:16) Devil Psalm 91)
Here we find Jesus wrestling with the lure of power, gaining it, keeping it and growing it. It is interesting that the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple for this test, the highest place of the highest place, with the whole world at his feet. Perhaps most interesting of all is that the devil uses scripture itself (Psalm 91) as a proof text to get Jesus to succumb to the temptation! As if the use of scripture somehow made what was being asked right. In our own day this is not an unknown strategy either. There are those who also use scripture as bait to get us to fall into our baser inclinations. Over the years I have had my beloved scriptures venomously waved in may face to try to justify behavior that I found immoral and unjust. “You can’t let homeless people live in our church. The Bible says the poor will always be with us. If you want to keep your pulpit you better do as I say.” And the like. Still, in today’s passage the devil is being more subtle. He is offering
Jesus unparalleled power if he will just do something flashy that the people will find undeniable. If he will be a good enough showman, then people will flock to him. Isn’t that what he wants anyway? The desire to have the world at our feet is a natural one whether it is at home, at work, or in the church. The subtle voice that says “just razzle dazzle them, just don’t be authentic for a moment and see if that will get you what you want” is not unknown to any of us. The problem for Jesus was that if he manipulated people into faith, was that really faith at all? It is the same for us. If we manipulate others into the next promotion, or the next hug, or the next prize, does it really mean anything? If we do that by not being real and true to our own life mission, can we be sure that what we receive is real and true in return? Ponder this ‘temptation’ in your life? How do the luring words come to you? How do them seem justified? Take a moment to examine your heart for this pattern, then release it to God.
Prayer: Gracious God, help me today not to be fooled by the lure to achieve my goals, or gain some kind of power over others, by unholy, unkind, inauthentic means. Help me release this tendency to you for healing. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
February 24 – Being Inauthentic- Mark 1:12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Mark’s gospel tells the story of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness in one simple and provocative verse. What do we learn? Immediately after the great high of receiving his mission from God at his baptism, the Spirit compels him to go and face his demons before he can go on with his saving work. We can’t know the specific things with which Jesus wrestled in those 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. More than that, 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, 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, that are inauthentic to your true self, feelings, and beliefs for a whole host of reasons. Invite the Spirit to show you a specific incidence when you hid behind a mask and how that affected you and others? Did it get you want you thought you wanted? Was there a price to pay? Look at that tendency carefully and gently. When you are ready, release that tendency to God.
Prayer: Gracious God, today help me to see the times when I hide behind a mask, when I want others to think I am something that I am not. And, when I want them not to
see who I really am. Help me to release this tendency and live a more authentic life. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
February 25 - Fear - Romans 8:15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
Often when we find ourselves living inauthentic lives, or lives in which we hide our true selves, fear is the ultimate motivator. Some say that fear is false evidence appearing real. Why is the evidence false if the wolf really is at the door, the diagnosis really is dire, the bombs really are falling, and the relationship really is over? The evidence is false not because awful things are not, and do not, happen. The evidence is false because we tell ourselves lies about it. Paul is writing to people he does not know well but his subject is universal. When times are hard it scares us, and we forget who we are. Paul wants us to remember that what we are experiencing is not all that is real at any given time. God is not mad at us. God has not abandoned us. Does that mean the bad things won’t happen to us? Not necessarily. What it does mean is that the bad things will never be the last things that happen to us. Good is always both present and on the way. In the ancient world, a father could disown a genetic son, but adoption was permanent. Nothing could change that. Paul reminds us that our status as God’s beloved child is unchangeable, so fear need not rule our lives, especially fear of God’s rejection. It is not possible. Think about what you fear. Is the thing you fear likely? Often the fear itself is as bad as what we fear. Remember that some fear is natural. It can motivate us to take care of ourselves, our loved ones, and our community. But when the fear becomes toxic and takes up undue energy, or else immobilizes us completely, then it needs to be released. It can be released because we belong to God and glory and wonder are always ahead for us. Today notice when fear arises in you. Ask yourself if it is urging you to address something for the good or if it only sapping your strength and making you miserable. If the later, and you are ready, release that tendency to God.
Prayer: Gracious God, your love and care are greater than anything we fear, even fear itself. Help me today to notice when fear is immobilizing me and to release those feelings to you with confidence. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
February 26 - Worry - Matthew 6:31-34 (25-34) Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed, your heavenly Father knows you need all of these things. But strive for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Worry is a thief. It robs us of the beautiful and powerful moments of our lives. If we nurse our worries, they quickly become fears. If we ruminated on them, we could become debilitated. In this beautiful passage in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is trying to teach his disciples, then and now, how much their worry is costing them. He sees that they are
worrying about many of the same things we worry about and it all boils down to survival. Where is our next meal coming from? How can we get clean water? Can we get the kids new coats this winter? In the extended reading he adds fear for our lives. In each of those instances, Jesus gives examples from nature to show us how dearly God loves and cares for us. It is as if he is saying, “Just open your eyes and you will see for yourself the tender care and mercy of God. You are safe. So please do not waste your joy on worrying.” If you are anything like me, that is not always easy! Perhaps the wonderful clue to dealing with worry is to use our eyes and not just our intellect. If worry robs you of joy today, stop for a moment and look around you. Look at your confident sleeping pet, or the birds at your feeder or your sleeping child. That kind of rest and security is what God wants for you. Just as you would never forget your child’s needs, or even your pets, God will never forget your needs. Your worry will not somehow stir God to an action that God has not already undertaken. Notice today when you fall into worry. Look around you. See God’s care all around and remember how important you are!
Prayer: Gracious God, we thank you that you weave promises of your care and provision into the created order for us to see plainly. Help me today, if worry besets me, to open my eyes and see your love and care everywhere. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
February 27 Toxic Past - Philippians 3:12-14 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Paul is writing this letter to beloved friends from a horrific jail cell. It is hard to imagine the conditions of squalor and degradation he is in as he writes this most joyful of his letters. His friends have sent him an offering that will help him to survive his circumstances. At this point he has been sharing with them what he understands the goal of Godly like to be, to know Christ, to understand the power of the resurrection, and to share his sufferings and rejection if need be. He does not claim to have yet attained these goals but, not looking back, he presses on. It is interesting that he seems to tell us that clinging to the past, especially a toxic past, is a major stumbling block to Christian maturity. Most of us know that if we focus too much on the wounds of the past, or on our personal failures, they will soon come to dominate our thoughts and define how we see ourselves. We are no longer the one who experienced a failure. We are failures. When we allow the hurts of the past to define us and usurp our energy, we will head in the direction of our focus. Today, ask yourself if there are ways you have allowed a painful past to interfere with your present and your personal and spiritual aspirations? How have you experienced that stuck-ness? When a memory or feeling rises up in your heart or mind, notice it but try not to judge it. That only feeds it. Rather, lift the thought to God. Use your hand to toss it to God. Thank God for what you have learned from that experience and for the promise that it does not define you. You might say, “I give this to you, God. I am finished with it.”
Prayer: Gracious God, sometimes we feel haunted by memories, disappointments, and failures. Today we hand all of those tender things to you. Fill us with a different ‘haunting,’ a haunting of your Spirit of love and new life. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
February 28 - Poor Self-love – Matthew 22:39 And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Once in a particularly difficult time in my life, I remember sitting on my sofa talking to a friend that I trusted. In the course of telling her what was happening, I started blaming myself for everything, criticizing my every action and motivation. After I had been at that a while, and a bit of my pain energy was spent, she touched me on my shoulder and said, “Stop being so mean to my friend!” It took my breath away in that moment to realize how easily the ‘as yourself’ part of the great love commandment eluded me. Maybe you have known moment like that too. Your love for God seemed strong. And your neighbors too. But that ‘self’ part? Not so much. Scholars forever argue about this passage. Was Jesus fearful that we loved ourselves too much and we needed to up our game with our neighbors? I can see that. Or was the command really for three loves: God first, then neighbor and self, following behind. Well, I think that as is true with so much of scripture, we hear in the words exactly what each of our souls needs most. If we are not sure about God, this God’s calls to try loving God anyway. If we are harsh and judgmental of neighbors, and always making excuses for ourselves, we are invited to look at that. And, at least according to me, if we wouldn’t dare treat our neighbors with the same disdain with which we often treat ourselves, the text calls us to make a change. Today, see if you can recall a time, when you did not treat yourself in a loving way? Have you ever been troubled with poor self-esteem? Have you ever found yourself dealing with hurt or anger in a self-destructive way? Ponder this and see if you see a theme or a tendency to poor self-love in your life. Release that to God and ask God to fill that space with a healthy love and appreciation of your own sacred life.
Prayer: Gracious God, sometimes I treat myself so poorly. Why do I do it? Why do I misuse the life your give me and your temple that is my body? I am not even always aware until I feel the consequences. Help me today to see myself through your love filled eyes and to love myself rightly. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 1 - Need to Please – Acts 5:5 Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died.
The story of Ananias and his wife Saphira is one of the hairiest stories in the New Testament. What happened? In short, the early disciples considered all of their property and wealth to be held in common for the use of the whole community. People could still do what they wanted with what was theirs, but in case of need (and there was a lot of it) they often sold their holdings and gave all of the proceeds to the church. Ananias and Saphira’s problem was that they wanted to keep back a portion of what they sold, but still be seen by others as having given all. They wanted to please people and have their esteem, all while hedging their bets and keeping some profit back for themselves. When it became clear that that was what happened, they both dropped dead. Now, the text does not say
they were somehow struck dead as punishment. I have always thought that it was the shame of their duplicity that killed them. Whatever the case, most of us cannot identify with this story very well. I’ll bet, though, that that we, too, know what it is like to mask our true behavior in order to please those who matter to us. And we know how devastating it is to be found out. Can you think of any times when you have tried to make yourself look better to someone else? Told a story and buffed up your role in it to gain approval? Can you think of a time when your fear, or lack of trust, caused you to do something that you didn’t want anyone to know you had done? The need to please others is natural and in many ways a wonderful loving tendency in us. I want to please Robbie so I make cookies, sometimes when I would rather read a book. That is just a small hug, not a mighty deception. Still, if I make cookies while my back aches, my teeth grind and I find fault with the way he has left his socks on the floor and then lie about it, even by keeping my mouth shut, that is different. It is a delicate line and worth pondering. It often comes down to motive. If you can think of times when you got into people pleasing, and it didn’t go well for you internally or externally, what was your real motivation? Could there be a more honest way to get what you need? If you see this tendency in yourself, ask God to show you how it harms you and others. When you are ready, release that tendency and ask God to fill the space with honesty and true intimacy.
Prayer: Gracious God, help me today to understand the motives behind my choices so that I can live in an open, honest and loving way. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 2 - Retaliation – I Peter 3:8-9 Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but on the contrary, repay with a blessing.
I recently went to my doctor for my annual check-up. Now that I am officially old and on Medicare, there is a list of questions that I must answer to gauge my general health. These are questions like: can you put on your socks by yourself (yes) or can you pick up heavy objects from the floor (no) or do you laugh and enjoy hobbies and interests (a thousand times yes.) These questions are asked in order to help me, and my doctors see if there are areas of my well-being that need particular attention or intervention. When I read these wonderful verses from I Peter, I cannot help but see them as a similar kind of checklist for our spiritual and interpersonal wellbeing. I can almost see St. Peter in a lab coat with a clipboard asking, “How has your unity of spirit been this past year, Eugenia? Are you able to manage the heavy lift of sympathy, love, and a tender heart? Are you getting too big for your britches?” I see myself nodding and feeling a little smug. Then he looks over the tops of his glasses and asks, “What about your tendency to want to retaliate in kind when someone has hurt you?” Suddenly I’m no longer smug and wondering just how tender and sympathetic my heart really is. It can be natural to want to hurt when hurt, to return blow for blow, to wish evil on the one who does evil. In our national life, and to an extent throughout our dominant culture, the idea of ‘making them pay’ is often considered a virtue. In the Scriptures, it is never one. The opposite is the virtue: giving blessing when all the want to do is inflict harm. Peter says it. Paul says it. Jesus says it. And not only that, Jesus does it. It is the nature of Christ to lavish blessing on the least worthy. Again, and
again. I could write a book on this one! Today, though, take a few moments to consider the tendency to return evil for evil as if that somehow balances the scales. (It doesn’t.) How do you see that tendency in your life? In our broader community? If you would like to release that tendency and the bondage it brings, ask God to help you release the hurt and fill the empty space with empathy and forgiveness.
Prayer: Gracious God, how do you do it? How do you forgive again and again? How do you respond to disrespect with deep blessing? More important, how are we, who are made in your image, to do the same? How do we live in this world with an entirely new paradigm? Help us, O God, not to return evil for evil and to learn your ways of love and forgiveness. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 3 - Clinging to Possessions - 2 Corinthians 9:6-7 The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
It is apparent from the beginning of the Christian story that God’s people sometimes struggle with where our ultimate security lies. The discipline of giving, in my view, is designed not so much to fund needed ministries and projects as it is to desecrate the idol of money as security. Let’s face it, many of us struggle with that one. If we struggle to make ends meet, then what we have feels essential and can, indeed, be the difference between life or death, heat or cold, medicine or tragedy. If we are like the widow with the two small coins, it is hard to imagine letting go of one, much less both. If we are people who have enough, the concept of what is enough can be a constantly moving target. What if this happens? What if inflation gets worse? What if I get sick or my adult child loses his job and I have to help out? All of those are practical concerns. The problem is that they leave the main player of our lives out of the picture. Would God be unfaithful to God’s promise of provision when we follow God’s call to give? No. So why is it sometimes so hard to live a cheerful generous life? In part, I think, it is because we allow what we accumulate or control to give shape to our identity. Our 401k produces well, and we think, “I am successful.” We buy a nicer house or move into a larger apartment, and we think, “I am moving up in the world.” We follow all the rules for emergency savings and think, “I am prepared for anything.” Paul realizes that the tendency to cling excessively to our possessions and our money is a tough spiritual nut to crack. In these verses, he reminds us of the reciprocity that is built into spiritual giving. You reap what you sow. What I love here is his insight into the human mental gymnastics around giving. He knows that coerced or shamed giving is neither pleasing to God, nor useful for growth. It is giving that comes from a joy filled heart that is bursting with love and gratitude that moves life into bountiful living. Think today about your relationship with money (and power.) How do you use it? If you find that you have an anxious or negative relationship with money, ask God to help you release that attitude and fill you with joy in giving.
Prayer: Gracious God, help me today to trust you with every area of my life. Fill me with the joy of your promises and show me how I can cheerfully give back to you! In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 4 - Plans for the Future - Luke 12:20 But God said to him, ‘You fool!’ This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?
Today’s verse comes from an extended teaching in which Jesus is trying to help people grapple with the devastating consequences of greed. To help them do that, he tells a story about a very rich man who is doing so well for himself that he decides he must build bigger barns in which to store his bounty. Once that is done, he feels that he can relax, eat, drink and be merry. With that set up, Jesus has God address the man, call him a fool, tell him his life will be demanded of him that night. Then what will become of all his possessions and all his plans for the future? So, what is that all about? Clearly, Jesus is no fan of people hoarding their bounty when so many around them are in need. There is ample evidence of that. But is there more? I wonder if Jesus is also concerned that in the rich man’s desire for more and more, the man is putting off the joy and blessing available to him in the here and now. He clearly has enough to enjoy a merry time right now. And yet, he pushes that out into the future, blinded by the need to accumulate more. Jesus wants his hearers to know that when greed takes over the heart, there will never be barns big enough because enough always seems to move just beyond our reach. He also wants them to know that when we cannot feel joy today until some future goal is reached, that we will likely never experience joy at all. Most of us are not in the literal barn building business, but we do know how to become blinded to the days blessings because we are focused on a future when we will feel safe and secure. Can you think of a time when you were so focused on a future goal that the joys of the moment were put on the back burner? Do you find that you live in the future and are waiting somehow for your life to get started later? If you find a tendency toward greed, or putting off daily joy until you meet some benchmark, ask God for insight to help you see when you have crossed the line from pursing worthy goals to putting off your life in pursuit of them. If you are ready to release the hold, (not necessarily the plans) that your plans for the future have on you, offer that to God today and ask that God clarify your thinking and show you today’s joys.
Prayer: Gracious God, we thank you for the insight that these ancient teaching stories bring into our lives. Help me today to release all of my plans into your care, knowing that your plans for me are greater than anything I could dream. Awaken me to today’s blessings as you take me into tomorrow. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 5 - Comparisons - Exodus 20:17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
It has been said that most of us would be satisfied with what we have if we did not see others with something more. Early in our faith story, God recognized that comparing our lives to those of others would create problems in our own hearts, relationships, and communities. At the heart of this last of the Ten Commandments, is God’s desire that we not waste our energy comparing our lives with others and feeling dissatisfied as a result. There is a restlessness at the heart of these kinds of comparisons. It can set up a desire
within us, not just for something someone else has, but simply for something other than what we have. We may start by desiring a friend’s new apartment and pretty soon we desire their car, their relationship, their job, their trophies. In short, we become dissatisfied with our own lives and want somebody else’s. The truth is, there will always be someone richer, healthier, faster, more talented, smarter, wittier, skinnier, and more popular than we are. Does this mean that we do not strive to better ourselves? Of course not. Does it mean that if we don’t have enough, we should not desire more? No. What is means is that we will waste our lives and destroy our communities if we decide that the only way, we can be happy, and loving is if we can keep up with or outpace our neighbors. Those comparisons are poison, and they will inevitably leak into relationships and damage them badly. Can you see this tendency in yourself? Do you sometimes compare yourself to others and feel that you come up lacking? How does that affect your relationship with that person? If you would like to release the tendency to ‘comparisonitis,’ ask God to help you notice when you are doing it, then help you let go.
Prayer: Gracious God, you have given me such a lovely life, please forgive me for unduly comparing what I have, who I am, with others. Help me to feel the joy of this moment and release comparing my life with others. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 6 - Need to Win – Matthew 22:15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.
In this passage the Pharisees, (a powerful political/religious party in the Jewish community that was primarily concerned with interpreting and strictly enforcing the Law,)have become so rattled by Jesus that they are trying to trap him into a legal error so that they can either arrest or discredit him. What better way to do that than to bring up the subject of taxes. Jesus rather cagily slips the trap but sometimes you and I are not quite that nimble. Especially in this time of political division, theological rancor and either/or thinking, it can be hard not to rise to the bait when a family member or colleague tries to best us, or just prove we are wrong, and they are right. Last November, before the Thanksgiving holiday, my Face Book feed was flooded with friends expressing angst about family gatherings and the political and religious trip wires that they were unsure how to avoid. Sometimes the only survival skill we have in those situations is to choose not to engage. That is what Jesus chose in today’s passage. Sometimes, though, if the situation is so morally repugnant that to keep silence would feel like condoning, we must speak. The key in those circumstances, for our own spiritual health, is to release the need to win the argument. Instead, our goal can be to speak our truth plainly, with compassion and integrity, without the heavy artillery of blistering words that will leave lasting scars. It is, after all, not our job to convert. They belong to the Spirit. It is our job to proclaim and to live with integrity. Releasing the need to win, or have the last word, is not easy. Sometimes when we pull out of a difficult confrontation, we can still take it with us in our hearts and build resentment around it. Sometimes, if we have known abuse, any kind of confrontation can feel life threatening and we don’t so much want to win as want to run. In any case, if you find that you have an inordinate amount of energy invested in winning, or being right, so much so that the opponent seems completely wrong and without any
redeeming humanity, that tendency is exhausting and a thief. Think about times when you wrestle in this way? What seems to trigger you? How can you tell the difference between needing to prove yourself right and needing to speak truth with integrity? If you are ready to release the negative aspects of needing to win, ask the Spirit to give you a renewed sense of peace, security, and compassion for the journey.
Prayer: Gracious God, I thank you for the reminder that integrity is enough, that I do not have to always prove myself right. Fill me today with the sweet peace of letting go of the need to win. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 7 - Regret – 2 Corinthians 7:8 For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it (though I did regret it, for I see that I grieved you with that letter, though only briefly.)
Apparently, even for Paul, regret was a sticky wicket. In this one sentence we see him on the same see-saw we ride. “I don’t regret what I said or did, except for maybe sometimes a little.” Granted, Paul is referring to a pretty confrontational letter that he wrote to the Corinthian church challenging their behaviors, practices and even theology. He knows that when they got the letter, they were really hurt by it. I’m sure he wanted to help them and not to hurt them, but sometimes the line between those two things is pretty blurry. I have recently started physical therapy because I fell and broke my back. Yesterday it was really hard. It hurt. I could see in the therapists eyes her compassion and how much my whimpers affected her. Still, she had my long-term best interest at heart and so she pushed on. Surely Paul must have experienced a similar tug as he tries to help his broken congregation regain their strength. Paul regrets the pain his words caused but not the prescription they called on the people to take. That is the regret for pain but no regret for outcome. But what about the recipients of this letter? Did they feel regret when they got his letter? Did they regret their actions, their false steps, the pain their errors left in their wake? Frankly that is the kind of regret that I know most intimately. That is the regret of ‘How could I?’ or ‘Why didn’t I?’ Regret of this kind is not so easily transcended as the kind that Paul wrestled with and released in this passage. The regret for actions or inactions can take up a lot of room in the human heart and psyche. It can leave us focused on the past. It is exhausting to carry. It is fruitless. What has been done cannot be undone, even though it can be forgiven and redeemed. Do you ever find yourself awash in regret? How does it affect you? How do you deal with it? If you think you are ready to release debilitating regret, offer it to God. Ask for forgiveness if needed and renewed compassion for yourself. Toss those memories and tendencies into God’s arms, grateful for grace that is big enough to handle and transform even the worst you have done.
Prayer: Gracious God, help me today to release all of my regrets knowing that in the beauty of your grace, I no longer need to carry them. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 8 - Lies - Exodus 20:16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
These days, when faced with contradictory claims vehemently voiced and impervious to facts, we too can find ourselves standing with Pilate, dazed, and asking, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) In today’s lesson, false witness refers to lying in court, or what we would
today call perjury and hearsay testimony. God knew in those early years that no community can stand without trust in the bedrock honesty of the judicial system. If you cannot trust what people say under oath, then how can justice exist? Throughout the scriptures, the notion of lying when not on the witness stand is a little more nuanced. There are instances when lying is acceptable, for example to save a life or to make God look good. Even little white lies are sometimes considered moral if they are loving and enhance the esteem of another. Theologians through the ages have taken stances from insisting that all lies are completely and totally immoral, to some lies, on rare occasions, are bad but not as bad. But what about today? What happens when people prefer lies to truth and will do anything to hold as true that which is demonstrably untrue? What then? Heaven help us is all I can say to that. But what about us? If it is true, as in the old medical drama House, Dr. House used to say, “Everybody lies,” what are we to do? First of all, I think we must acknowledge that nearly no lies are completely benign. With the possible exception of lying to protect someone you are giving sanctuary in your home; even white lies can be robbers. They take from someone potentially beneficial knowledge of the truth. They place a wall between us and others. The more significant or self-serving the lie, the higher and thicker the wall becomes. Perhaps the most destructive lies are those we tell ourselves about ourselves. Those are the lies that either exalt our actions and motives, or the ones that denigrate them and lead to unshakeable shame. Think today about how and when you have a tendency to lie or shade the truth. What is your motive? Have you noticed any consequences? If you are ready to release this tendency, ask God for help. Sometimes we tell lies to ourselves so long we come to believe them and need help sorting truth from lies.
Prayer: Gracious God, help me today to live a truthful loving life, releasing any damaging lies and holding fast to you alone. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 9 - Burdens too Heavy for Me– I Peter 5:7 Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.
A wise spiritual director once gave me a small ball to use in my prayer practice. It was about the size of a baseball but not as heavy. Still, it had some weight to it. It was bright red. She gave this to me at a time when I was experiencing trouble on many fronts. My beloved father was dying. My husband’s business was in danger. My best childhood friend’s 15 year old son was killed in a wreck. My health was rocky, our finances rockier and the weight of old hurts was bending me over nearly double. I remember she said to me, “It is too much, Eugenia. Those burdens are too heavy for you to carry. Take this ball, name each of your burdens, the first that come to mind all the way until you run out of thought. Then toss that ball that carries all your burdens into a laundry basket, or off the deck or anywhere where you can easily leave it to retrieve later. Don’t retrieve it right away, even if you don’t feel lighter at once. You don’t need to toss and toss and toss. God caught it the first time. So just thank God for carrying the burdens that are to great for you. Ask God to show you if there are specific things you must do to ease the situation, but if not, let God do what only God can do.” That practice became a mainstay of my spiritual life and I have offered it to dozens of folk who were struggling over the years. Perhaps you
might want to memorize this verse, or to write it on a note and pin it to your mirror. It is your truth. You are not required to carry burdens that are too heavy for you. You can invite and allow God to carry the lion’s share of the load for a while. Even on his way to the cross, Jesus asked for help carrying. So can you. Today, I invite you to try the prayer practice I described. It doesn’t have to be a ball. You can use a rolled-up sock. or yarn. or anything you can lay hand to. As you name your burdens see if you can feel their physical presence in your body. As you release the ball, see if the weight shifts at all. Eventually it will.
Prayer: Gracious God, we are so grateful that you care for us and promise to carry burdens too heavy for us. Help me today to trust you and release to you my burdens. Thank you for lightening my heart. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 10 – External Security as an Excuse- Luke 10:4 Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.
Jesus has appointed seventy of his early followers to go out on a preaching and teaching mission. He has been preparing them for a long time. They have listened slack-jaws to his great ethical teaching sermon on the plain. He has fed the five thousand. He has told them that greatness doesn’t lie where they think. He has told them how exacting being his follower can be. Now, he thinks they are ready to set forth in this name. Now he gives them their final instructions about what to take with them as they go out to share his love and ways. In a similar story in Matthew, Jesus sends out the twelve and tells them not to take anything extra, like an extra tunic. But in today’s story, they are to take nothing at all but who they are, who Jesus has made them, and Jesus own power and message. They don’t need money. They don’t need a purse to carry earnings, they don’t need an extra pair of shoes and they don’t even need the esteem of people they meet on the road. They themselves, changed, transformed, healed, born anew, they are all that they need to take with them to spread the gospel. It is the same with us. We don’t need a lot of money or fancy stage lighting and visual effects. We don’t need a bag of tricks or the esteem of others along the way. All we need in order to make the case for Jesus is the case he makes with our lives. We need nothing outside of ourselves. All we need is the Bible Jesus continues to write with our lives. When that is all we need, then the extras can’t hurt. But when we think the extras are necessary for our message, then they will quickly reek of hypocrisy and become our focus rather than our tools. When you think of sharing your faith, or in some way living it out loud in word or action, do you ever find that you feel like you do not have what you need, the right setting, the right words, the right scripture knowledge? If you knew that God wanted you to share your faith with another and all you had was your own story of how God had changed your life, what would you say? The expansion of the gospel happens today just as it always has, person to person, story to story, transformed heart to transformed heart. Sometimes we have a bigger microphone than others. Sometimes we think we need ‘an extra pair of sandals’ to even begin, but the truth is, Jesus speaks to hearts with hearts. Ponder today whether or not there are benchmarks you have set in place before you are comfortable sharing your faith. What bag
of tricks, or sandals, do you need to leave behind? What approval of others can you release?
Prayer: Gracious God, help me today to be ready to serve you, ready to share your love. Remove from me any excuses or feelings of inadequacy. You have written your word of love and grace with my changed life. Remind me that that is enough for what you ask of me today. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 11 – Selective Blindness – Luke 16:19-21 There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.
The story of the rich, self-satisfied man, and the poor Lazarus certainly doesn’t pull any punches. The story comes in the midst of a long teaching in which Jesus is still trying to help the Pharisees understand what their love of money is doing to them and to the community. There are elements in this story that are too rich and complex for us to examine in a short devotion like this. So, let’s focus on just one aspect. A central point of the story is that wealth and ease can blind us to what is happening around us, and also to what is happening within us. We simply choose not to see that which might call us to change or to share. Most of us are not. I’m guessing, the super-rich like the man in this story. Maybe we have plenty, but not the kind of excess we see here. Maybe, in fact, we identify more with Lazarus who is just scrambling for the scraps needed day by day to survive. Many of us fall somewhere in the middle between these characters. No matter where we find ourselves, I expect that we each know something about choosing not to see or address that which is threatening to us, that which might call us to change, or that which might urge us to open our eyes, pockets, and priorities to the needs of those around us. The rich man in this story was so wealthy and self-satisfied he stepped over the poor man at his gate day after day without seeing him. Our selective blindness can be a little more subtle than that. Maybe we stay out of certain areas of town because we tell ourselves they are unsafe when what we really fear is that they will be unsettling. Maybe we block all those that disagree with us on social media because we don’t want to test our own opinions. Maybe we would rather ban a book or an idea that wrestle with what it might say about the world and our place in it. Maybe we choose not to look at our motives in how we use our time, our money, our vote our energy. Maybe we choose not to look at the behavior of a family member, thinking that if we don’t face it, it will just go away. In our own ways, we know how to turn a blind eye, and we know the cost of doing so. For the rich man in our story, the cost was dire and eternal. For us, the cost may not be quite so dear, but each moment we turn away from a need, from a truth that makes us uncomfortable, from a problem that seems intractable, we find ourselves like the rich man did, in the fiery furnace of uselessness. Think for a moment about some of your blind spots. You may not know what they are, of course, since by definition they have to do with what you do not see. But you will know some. The Spirit will see to that. Ask yourself if you are ready to release them. If so, toss them to God asking for grace and courage to see and face what you have not seen clearly before.
Prayer: Gracious God, help me today to see what I have chosen to hide. Help me to see needs around me that, with your courage, I may face. Help me to be an instrument of your grace in any way you want. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 12 - Procrastination - James 4:13-14 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring.”
In this section of James letter, he is giving his flock a list of qualities, attitudes, and behaviors to avoid. He has told them to stop quarrelling amongst themselves, to stop lusting after worldly pleasures, to stop praying for things with wrong and selfish motives, and to stop doubting themselves. Toward the end of this list, he makes a point of calling out the dangers of procrastination. He is particularly upset that people are putting off the demands of the gospel until they make enough money, or finish this or that business venture. He reminds them that no one is promised tomorrow, and that if we do get a tomorrow who knows what it will bring. All of those procrastinations are a way of saying that something else is more important to us at the moment. If the house is on fire, we do not put off getting out. It is the most important thing. But if we are asked to serve on a mission team, or to visit a cranky neighbor, or discipline a colleague at work, then all of a sudden finishing a work project, or getting supper in the oven, or going to the water fountain, is more important than the task at hand. We only put off something when something else is more important. That something else can simply be our feeling of comfort, or the desire to be the good guy in any situation. Today take a moment to think about anything you may be putting off. Why are you doing that? What seems more important? Is it really? If you are ready to release this tendency, ask God to help you notice it when it happens, and to unmask your excuses so that you can confidently do what needs to be done in the moment.
Prayer: Gracious God, sometimes everything seems more important than the most important things. Sometimes I get scared and put off confrontation or trying something new. Help me to be discerning today. Show me what is most important and give me courage to follow where you lead. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 13 - Excuses - Matthew 8:21 Another of his disciples said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
People have been listening to Jesus with amazement. They see in him something that they have never seen before. He has an air of authority and such undeniable, and fresh wisdom that all they want to do is follow him and learn from him. Well, almost all they want to do. They want to follow, but they naturally want to take care of their affairs and relationships before they do such a drastic thing. Jesus will have none of it. He seems to see each of the requests, which seem entirely reasonable and loving to me, to be excuses that make the follower unworthy of following. I have always had a love/hate relationship with this passage. Perhaps that is because, like many of us I assume, I have always had a love/hate relationship with total commitment to Christ and all of the submission that that entails. Why did Jesus seem so harsh in this text? Was it unreasonable to want to settle your
father’s estate or kiss your family goodbye before your left town to follow a wandering scandal ridden rabbi? Perhaps Jesus sensed something beneath those reasonable sounding requests. Perhaps he sensed in them a reluctance to give all, a hesitation about entering into a new life that Jesus knew would entail hardship and danger. Perhaps he sensed that those requests were just delaying tactics, just excuses to appear ready to give all while not actually being ready to give all. The important thing, Jesus knows, is that a follower of Christ be willing to be ruled by Christ and not by any other allegiance. Perhaps Jesus was testing them like they so frequently tested him. Perhaps he just wanted to know that nothing would be more important to them than he was and as soon as he got a sense of that he would say, “Go bury your Daddy and we’ll meet you in the next village. Now I know that you would give all to me, so you don’t have to…this time.” I’m not sure about that. What I am sure of is that Jesus has no patience with our excuses for not taking on the deep challenges of discipleship. If our job is more important, or our inheritance, or even our family, then Jesus knows we will be vulnerable to all of those things. And when the hard times come, as they do in one way or another for all of us, then those things we have put first will never hold us up. They cannot save us. Can you think of a time when you made excuses to delay an important commitment or a fledgling calling? Can you think of a time when you made excuses to get out of doing something you really didn’t want to do but wanted others to think you did? How did that work? Ponder today the things that actually come first in your life. How do those allegiances impact your spiritual growth and maturity? If you notice that you make excuses from fear, people pleasing, or indecision, ask God to show you when you do that. If you are ready to release that tendency, then toss it in the laundry basket, take a deep breath and move forward on Christ’s invitation.
Prayer: Gracious God, sometimes I become confused by the tyranny of the urgent. Sometimes, too, I use that confusion as an excuse to stay in my comfort zone. Help me today to be brave, awake, and ready to follow wherever you lead. In Jesus’ Holy name I pray. Amen.
March 14 - Resentment - Matthew 26:14 Then one of the twelve, named Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests, and said, “what are you willing to give me to deliver him to you?” And their weighed out to him thirty pieces of silver.
Judas is one of the most interesting characters in our faith story, probably not least because, whether we like to admit it or not, we really get him. When we look at him closely, we can see our own eyes looking back at us. At one time or another, in large or small ways, most of us have betrayed our values to get what we want. We may even have betrayed those that loved us to try to get them to do what we want. There are many who believe that Jesus and Judas were in cahoots, that Jesus needed Judas when the time was right to set the ball rolling for the cross and our salvation. Many others find that idea completely appalling, verging on blasphemy. Maybe the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It often does. Whatever we think of Judas, it is without question that from time to time we share some things in common with him. If the stakes are high enough, we will do just about anything to get what we want or what we think is right. What intrigues me is what motivated Judas to do what he did. If you read passages before the betrayal, it is
clear that Judas is getting angrier and angrier. Things are not going the way he thought they should, and he is fed up. The anointing of Jesus with expensive ointment is the last straw. From that moment his resentment does nothing but build until it can do nothing but seek to destroy. That is what resentment does. One dashed expectation at a time, day after day, it sours our hearts until something must be done to relieve our pain. The problem with resentment is that it is self-defeating. Granted we may lash out and do harm to another in a faulty effort to return to some kind of equilibrium, but the truth is that we have been doing daily harm to ourselves for a long time before we erupt. Resentment is also a liar. It draws stark lines between us and others, telling us that ‘they’ are the problem. ‘They’ are why we hurt. ‘They’ must be stopped or else. If you scratch the surface of many a prejudice, you will find a fear that has long been nursed into resentment. Think for a moment today about your own resentments. Can you identify any? If so, I promise you, they are not serving you well, no matter how justified they may seem. If you are ready to begin to release your resentments, know that it is a process. Today, start with a relatively small thing. Look at its roots and when you are ready release it to God. Ask God to fill the cleared space in your heart with love and light and compassion.
Prayer: Gracious God, sometimes our hearts are a tangled mess of hurts, resentments, and confusion. Help us today to take our hurts and expectations to you before they fester. Help us to release the grinding pain of resentment and rest content in you. In Jesus holy name I pray. Amen.
March 15 - Manipulation – Matthew 5:37 But let your word be, ‘Yes, yes’ or No, no’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Today’s verse comes from Jesus’ masterclass on ethics and holiness that we call the Sermon on the Mount. In this extended section he is trying to help us understand what it takes to have long lasting, healthy, loving relationships. Of course, he quickly covers the basics: don’t kill each other, don’t hold grudges, make friends with your opponents, don’t commit adultery and don’t act in ways that will lead your friends astray. Then he moves to today’s verse. Here he reminds us that there can be no true intimacy in our relationships without trust and personal integrity. If we change with the wind, if those closest to us never know if we will keep our word or mean what we say, then the best we can hope for is to go through the motions of human love and commitment, never to be able to rest and restore our souls in safe and faithful friendship. Somewhere along the way, often in childhood I suspect, we learn to say what we think people want to hear. We think we do this so as not to hurt or upset others. Or maybe we do it because we are trying to get affirmation or love from another. Maybe we do it in an attempt to gain something from another like a promotion, a proposal, or a vote. In whatever circumstance, when we enter into the exhausting dance of undependable integrity, all involved are harmed. Can you think of times when you say yes then do no? Or times when you say no but secretly intend yes? Can you think of times when you hedge your bets, or compromise your principles, in order to get a reaction that you want or feel you need from someone? Does that happen more at home or in the workplace? If you can identify times when your word becomes slippery and undependable, ask yourself what motivates you. Is it just a people pleasing
habit or is there something more? If you are ready to release this tendency in your heart, toss it in the laundry basket. Take a deep breath and see if you can feel for a moment the spaciousness and freedom that comes from committing to life with integrity.
Prayer: Gracious God, sometimes we have spent a life time trying to get what we want from others in manipulative ways. Like a slippery politician that nobody believes anymore, our words carry no sacred weight with those we love. Help us today to live open, honest and truthful lives. Remove from us the tendency to use others to meet our needs. Turn us from our comfort with falsity. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 16 - Disappointments - Matthew 27:61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.
It is hard to look at the picture of these two women who loved Jesus more than life as they sit down opposite his tomb after standing next to him as he died so brutally on the cross. The overwhelming grief coupled with the deep disappointment that it had all come to this, takes my breath away every time I think of it. Granted, we know the rest of the story, but at that moment they did not. We know that the end is not the end, but they did not. We know that he will never leave them or us, but at that moment they did not. Sometimes our own disappointments are nearly of that magnitude. We stand at the grave of our child and see the emptiness ahead, and all of the things we had assumed we would experience land like blows. The one who pledged to love us walks away and the vision of growing old together melts like fog. The diagnosis comes in and our plans for the future are suddenly void. Most of the time, though, our disappointments are not that lethal. We don’t get into the school that is our first choice. We don’t make the team. We don’t get the promotion that we were sure we should. We don’t get the raise, or the contract, or the flowers for Valentine’s Day. Even those simpler disappointments that don’t linger too long in our minds, can have a cumulative effect in our hearts. We can begin to think of others as disappointments, never quite meeting our needs. We can come to think of ourselves as disappointments, never quite getting ahead. Gradually we become disappointed with life, with our lives and all they contain. When that happens, things dull to gray and even the most beautiful and unexpected graces can be overlooked. Think for a moment about disappointments you have experienced. If they still need to be grieved, do that. Cry or yell if you need to. If they don’t carry that weight but still come back to you with a twinge of pain, offer those to God and ask for relief and release. You do not have to define your life by what did not go as you had hoped.
Prayer: Gracious God, we thank you for your loving care for us when we are hurt or disappointed in our lives. Help us not to take on our disappoints as a life position and view our world through that lens. Help us to release our disappointment to you so that we can find in each day the joy you promise. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
March 17 - Excessive Nostalgia – Genesis 19:26 But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked b ack, and she became a pillar of salt.
Lot’s wife is a tragic character in our faith family story. She lives in a town run amok. Her town, Sodom, is about to be destroyed. This is, quite frankly, a horrible and hard to take
story that requires a lot of study and help to grasp and find any hint of good news or redemption. If you read the whole thing, try not to get tangled up in it. What captured me for this meditation is how hard it is to let go of what we know and are accustomed to, even when it is awful. Many of us have fond, cozy memories of childhood or our young adult lives. We have memories of running through sprinklers in the summer, or eating ice pops on the stoop and watching neighbors walk or play in the street. Or we remember with a smile what it was like to be young and full of energy, ready to face the giants with confidence and a measure of the supernatural power of youth. When we remember those times, we may certainly feel a bit of nostalgia for the world as it once was in our minds. That is natural and sweet. What is unnatural and salty is looking back to the extent that we despise now and white wash then. Lot’s wife was given a special grace to escape with her family from a destruction that was surely coming. She was told not to look back but to focus her eyes straight ahead on the saving path God had prepared for her. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t leave the past behind in its proper place, not even to save her life and to obey her God. That inability killed her. Sometimes we too can cling so tenaciously to the past, even an ugly past or one that we have made up from our wily memories, and give that past every ounce of our life energy trying to recapture it. When nostalgia becomes excess, not just the cozy feeling of watching an old sitcom or looking at the family picture album, but when all of life is defined by what was, we may not turn into a pillar of salt, but we will dry up and lose the sweetness that is always available even in the direst now, and is guaranteed in every future. If you find that you are looking back too much, that you judge today against the remembered standard of yesterday and find today wanting, if you can’t let go of the way things were even if they are damaging you and others, then you may have a tendency to toxic nostalgia. Ask God to help you identify when you are overly clinging to the past and to help you release that tendency. You will not lose what you loved, only what is killing you now.
Prayer: Gracious God, sometimes we just don’t know what is good for us even when you tell us straight out. Help us not to waste today looking back at yesterday. Rather, help us to live this day strengthened by the gifts of the past but no longer bound by them. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 18 - Looking Good Only on the Outside - Matthew 21:18-19a In the morning when he returned to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing on it but leaves.
When we pick up Jesus’ story here, he has arrived in Jerusalem for what we know will be the last time. He immediately went to the Temple and was appalled at the exploitative commerce he found taking place there. In explosion of righteous indignation, he turns over tables, disrupts businesses and chases people around with a whip. Needless to say, that upset or awed almost everybody. Now we find him on his way to home base in Bethany. The kind of rage and disappointment that he experienced has left him hungry and he goes up to a beautiful fig tree, glossy and healthy looking to find a snack. What he finds is a tree that looks good but has no figs. He curses it and declares it will never have figs again. The tree withers and dies. Clearly, he sees a parallel between the fig tree and
the people he found in the Temple. They looked good too from a distance. They were wearing the right clothes and doing business in a customary way. The problem was the fruit. They looked good but produced nothing of holiness. Just like the fig tree, they were no longer doing what they were created to do. They looked good but they no longer actually were good. Sometimes we too can substitute appearances for depth, especially in the spiritual life. We may look pious in church on Sunday but be mean and vicious to our family on the way to and from. We may wear a cross around our necks and carry our Bibles with us to the office and still harbor prejudice and a willingness to lash out at anyone that disagrees with us. Looking good on the outside is not the same as being transformed into the likeness of Christ from the inside. Can you think of times when your outsides are just a pretense, when a smile hides a dagger, when a prayer is little more than a self-serving rant? Most of us, I suspect can think of those times. If you are ready to stop trying to look good and get about the real transformative journey of being made good, then release this tendency to God in prayer. Apologize for the pretense and for the missed opportunities that came with them. Ask God to replace pretense in you with a transformed spirit and watch what happens.
Prayer: Gracious God, sometimes it just seems easier to fake it. The path to holiness is hard and we lose our way. Help us today to release the pretenses and to live authentically changed lives in your name. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 19 - Pride - Mark 7:20-23 And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Here again, Jesus is trying to help us see that all human behavior comes from the heart. The heart in the ancient world was not just the seat of the emotions. Rather it was the seat of the ego and the will. When our egos are broken so will our behavior be broken. What is unredeemed within us will always come out in some behavior that is harmful to others. Always. We can justify almost any awful thing we do to somebody when we haven’t had the courage to look deeply at ourselves. In the midst of this list of awfulness that flows like a stream from Jesus’ lips is the one little word that is bigger than all the others, the one little word that contains and fuels all the others. Pride. This word refers to more than an inflated opinion of oneself. It refers to an unredeemed ego run amok with no boundaries other than the gratifying of personal desires. Pride assumes that what we want, by definition must be right. It assumes that we are somehow the center of the universe and all else should bend the knee to our wants and needs. Pride considered one of the traditional seven deadly sins by many is seen in the Reformed tradition as the root sin, the root condition called Sin that then results in all kinds of behaviors that are strangers to love. Pride is incapable of love of others because it’s love of self is so distorted. It’s love of self is distorted because it knows only the image it wants others to see and not the true soul that lies within. It is from this false self, this unhealed, unexamined ego, that all painful and degrading behavior flows. Here Jesus is telling us to look at our hearts and see what is there. Even if we would never dream of doing the things on his list, if we don’t deal
with our root heart and motivations, pride will out sooner or later and we will dispense pain to others in order, falsely, to fortify ourselves from change, growth, and healing. Take a moment today to look into your heart. I know you will find much love and beauty there. Look a little deeper. Do you find a pridefulness that assumes it is right and that others should agree? Do you find a pridefulness that is willing to use other people to meet your desires? Do you find a pridefulness that secretly thinks you are better than those with less education, advantages, or natural talents? What else do you see? If you find any tentacles of pride in your heart, make a decision to release them to God. Take a deep breath and imagine what might fill up the inner spaces that pride and selfishness leave behind. That is the true you and it is more beautiful than words.
Prayer: Gracious God, sometimes we are strangers to ourselves, but our behavior will always tell us what is really going on in our hearts. Today, examine our hearts and heal the places that need it. Fill us with love. Awaken us to our deepest selves so that we may be your love in the world. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 20 - Gluttony - Proverbs 23:21 for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and drowsiness will clothe them with rags.
Someone dear to me once said, “The problem with nearly everybody is more brand new.” The desire for more when enough is enough certainly can be a problem. The deadly sin of gluttony is not just eating an entire quart of Ben and Jerry’s while simultaneously knocking off a bag of Ruffles. Although the thought of that is enough to gag most of us. Gluttony is not over eating or over drinking in and of itself. It is too much of anything. Too much food, too much drink, too much screen time, too much couch time, too much hobby time, too much of anything that takes you away from your life rather than fulfills it. Gluttony is at its heart a numbing mechanism. We stuff ourselves with substances or activities until we can no longer think, feel, or know what is going on around us or is in our own hearts. Sometimes this can be useful in a limited way. It is not strange that people bring food to those who are grieving. There is comfort in eating sometimes. There is beauty in a big feast. One of the criticisms of Jesus in his day was that he ate and drank too much. Was he a glutton? Obviously not. Gluttony kicks in when we use something, and it can be anything, as a short-term solution to our problems or emotions. All the Ben and Jerry’s on the planet will never assuage our grief, our guilt or our poor self-esteem. Only God can do that. If we turn to substances or activities to do for us what only God can do, we will find ourselves in trouble very quickly. Take a moment to think about your over indulgences. Do you notice anything that you do obsessively? Can you think of anything that you do to change your emotions? Do you sometimes over do? If you find that tendency in yourself and would like to let it go, toss it in the laundry basket and ask God to help you day by day.
Prayer: Gracious God, help me today to enjoy my life and to know for sure when enough is truly enough. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 21 - Willful Ignorance – Acts 7:57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.
Today’s verse could be ripped from the headlines, couldn’t it? This verse comes in the story of the early disciple, Stephen. The scripture says that he is a person full of grace and power. He has been doing signs and wonders that have upset the temple leadership. They arrest him for causing a disturbance. He makes his defense by beautifully rehearsing salvation history from the beginning and then calls out the leaders for not getting it at all. It is at this point, when their own faith story has been used as a mirror before their faces, that the authorities can stand no more. They cover their ears, rush toward him in masse, and condemn him to death. (By the way, the apostle Paul was a supporter in this crowd and held the robes of those who stoned Stephen to death.) In our day, we know how-to live-in echo chambers in which we refuse to hear what others have to say if they disagree with us, or especially if they are calling us out on our behavior. Sometimes refusing to listen to babbling untruths is a useful survival skill. Other times it is an ego game that can lead us quickly from rejecting an idea, to doing violence against a person, or community, or even institution. When we only listen to that which reinforces our own prejudices it is very easy for the ‘other’ to be painted as a dangerous enemy, less than human, that must be destroyed. In some states right now, leaders are banning books that they think contain ideas they dislike or would lead to conversations that might be uncomfortable or damage an idealized version of life and history. They stop their ears when the full range of history is taught, when the voices of the oppressed are heard, when the legacy of slavery is identified. Like a child who covers his ears and babbles when asked to clean up his room, too many of us do not want to hear what our wholeness and reconciliation requires that we do hear. Just like the temple authorities did with Stephen, we can turn violently on the one who tries to help us see. Can you think of ways that you stop your ears and kill the messenger sometimes? Are there points of view that you simply will not listen to? If you find that you are fearful of things that are new or might ask you to reevaluate a long held view, ask yourself if you are ready to release that defense mechanism. Do you trust God to hold you up in difficult discussions? Do you trust that no idea itself can harm you? Do you trust yourself to hear and sort good from evil, better from best? If so, release this tendency to reject before listening. God may bring you blessings in respectful hearing, especially if it helps us see our own blind spots.
Prayer: Gracious God, we live in such small chambers of the mind so often. Are we so timid in our beliefs that we cannot listen to those of others and search for our common humanity with them? Are we so fragile in our egos that we cannot bear the scrutiny of those who see our flaws when we do not? Sometimes we are. Help us today to open our ears to hear your voice, even if it comes from an unexpected place. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 22 - Rage - Luke 4:28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.
It can be especially hard to speak your truth at home, can’t it? This verse comes when Jesus has gone home and begun to preach in front of a crowd of folks who have known him all of his life. They know the scandal of his birth. They know how he led his parents on a merry chase by staying at the temple and being lost for several days. Maybe they even
remember what he said the first time he hit his thumb with a hammer in his father’s carpenter shop. When I went to be pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Birmingham Alabama, I remember climbing into the pulpit my first Sunday and seeing the pews dotted with people I had been in college with in the seventies. I had a moment of angst. What did they remember? I knew there were no secrets here. (Of course, I remembered theirs too which was some comfort.) But that moment of realization came with a sense of vulnerability. The problem came for Jesus when we began to go outside the bounds that there former relationship with him and his family had set in place. He senses this and calls them out on it, telling them that prophets are only without honor in their hometowns. This utterly enrages the people who have come to hear the hometown boy preach. I wonder what enraged them. Was it their pride of place that they thought was disrespected? Was it like saying, “America, love it or leave it” when someone talks about ways we need to change? Was it that they thought he was trying to be above himself? Was it because he shone too harsh a light on their lives? I’m not sure. But rage always has a trigger. Take a moment to ponder whether you have ever experienced anger that escalated to rage. What was the trigger? In my experience, if we want to release the toxic toll that rage takes on ourselves, our relationships and society, we cannot hope to do that if we cannot identify the triggers. People who are full of rage are always full of pain, shame, and/or fear. So today see if you can think for a bit about what tends to light your fuse. What is the source? Ask God to help you and show you other responses that will not be harmful to yourself and others. When you are ready, try to imagine your rage as a ball of flame. Remind yourself that in this form it cannot hurt you. Allow it to turn a beautiful violet color, the color for royalty and healing. Then toss the violet ball in the laundry basket. Don’t forget to say thank you after a practice like this. You may feel release right away or you may have to practice this several times before you notice what God is doing in your heart. God will set the timing that is best for you.
Prayer: Gracious God, we live in such a rage filled time. Everywhere we look people are lashing out at each other in hurtful and destructive ways. We even know how to lapse into rage ourselves from time to time. Help us to release that negative energy and drink in your grace today. Thank you. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 23 - Greed - 2 Peter 2:14c They have hearts trained in greed.
In the scripture the word for greed almost always refers to money, wealth, or possessions. Peter has been sharing with his flock the character traits by which Christians are to be known. Now he is talking to them about the pitfalls that he sees in false prophets. He is afraid that the people will fall to the flash and dazzle, the worldly success and wealth that popular false prophets sometimes enjoy. He describes them as people whose hearts of full of adultery and who entice weaker souls with all their razzle dazzle. At the heart of what he condemns is a deep greed that sees everything as an opportunity for gain either in wealth or status. Slightly different from, but related to gluttony, a person enthralled to greed never reaches a point of saying that what they have is enough. The finish line continually moves. When one wealth or status goal is met, it does not satisfy because it is immediately followed by another to be pursued. Greed can be practiced by individuals,
congregations, communities, and nations. Greed stockpiles more than can ever be used. It begins to look at what is accumulated, and what may yet be accumulated, as it’s real source of power and security. Most of us know pesky desires that can tangle us up, but fewer of us know the kind of greed that takes over our ethics and begins to make our moral decisions for us. In greed MORE becomes God. Have you ever experienced this in your personal life? Maybe but I doubt it. Have you ever seen this in a loved one, colleague or family member? Again maybe, but I expect rarely. We most often see this kind of greed operating in communities or in halls of power. Can you think of times that you have seen this tendency among the powerful? If you find yourself vulnerable to greed, ask God to remove this trait from you. It is hard to do it as an act of will because it often feels like a virtue. If you see this kind of greed in ‘false prophets’ in our day, pray for them. If you see it in leaders, pray for their release as well.
Prayer: Gracious God, we ask today that you will protect us, our families, and our communities from debilitating greed. If you find it in our hearts, remove it and replace it with the purest form of gratitude. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 24 - Envy – 1 Timothy 6:3-9 Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accord with godliness, is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words. From these come envy, dissension, slander, and base suspicions, and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.
Envy is a powerful emotion that can set in motion dynamics in the human heart that are hard to turn around. Think of Jacob’s envy of his brother Esau’s special relationship with their father. That envy led to lies, stealing, deception and a total rupture in the fabric of the family for many, many years. Joseph’s brothers’ envy of their brother’s status with their father is another case in point. This one led to slavery and pain for generations. Ahab envied Nabboth’s vineyard and people died. David envied Uriah his wife, Bathsheba, and generations of death and destruction followed. In today’s verses Paul is concerned that straying far from Jesus’ words will produce an envy that unleashes the flood gates of disastrous behavior. Even in our day, intense enough envy can fracture families and lead to death. More often for us, for good and ill, envy does not lead to quite those severe consequences. Still, great damage can be done to relationships from unexamined and untamed envy. Even the simplest envy, the ‘I want something that you have’ kind can make us miserable and eventually lead us to hate or disparage the one who has what we want. There is much in our culture that stokes our envy. Our economy is built on fanning the flames of our desires for something. One of the sneaky things about nursing envy is that it often leads to insecurity and fear. Our pathway to what we want is never quite sure enough. Think for a moment today about whether envy 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 envy 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 and ask for help to release the hold envy has on you.
Prayer: Gracious God, help me today to be grateful for all that I have. Search me and show me any places where envy hides in my heart. Release me from its prison so that I may live fully and gratefully the live the life you give me today. In Jesus’ holy name I pray.
March 25 - Laziness - Matthew 25:26a But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave!
Some of us have been raised to think that if we aren’t working at the next task on our to do list that we are lazy. In extreme cases. rest, hobbies, and refreshment can produce a secret guilt. We find ourselves thinking, “I should really be doing something more productive” and suddenly the joy of the moment is marred. In order to understand today’s verse, we need to let go of those limiting beliefs and look at what laziness actually is in this Bible story. The story is of a wealthy man who entrusts his resources to his servants while he is away on an extended trip. Two of the servants invest and are able to give the owner a good return on his investment when he comes back for an accounting. The third servant was so afraid of losing the money that he hid it in a hole in the ground and had only the original sum to return to the owner. (Try not to get tangled up in the slavery language here. Yes, it was awful then. It was awful in our country’s beginnings and its legacy is awful now, but that is not the point of this passage.) The laziness that this story points out might be best described as the fearful inability to do anything for the greater good. This is the kind of laziness that lets a deadline at work pass and a project get scrapped for fear of doing it wrong or poorly. Better to do nothing than to fail. This kind of laziness results from, and results in, sluggish distorted thinking, that fears consequences of error more than the joy of accomplishment or service. Do you ever find that you let an opportunity pass you by because you are afraid you won’t be up to the task? Do you ever hold back at work because you are afraid that the boss won’t approve of your efforts? Are you ever hesitant to try something new if you think there is a risk you might not have foreseen? Are there times when you hold back from doing something for the greater good because you are afraid of upsetting someone that matters to you? If so, ask God to help you notice when this tendency arises in you. When you see it, ask yourself if the fears are really warranted? If not, then maybe today is the day to put your toe in the water and see what happens.
Prayer: Gracious God, help me today not to shy away from taking reasonable risks for the upbuilding of your kingdom and the glory of your name. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 26 - Acedia – Psalm 95:1 O come let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.
Today’s scripture verse is an example of the opposite of the concept I want you to explore today. The word comes from a Greek word that means something like negligence or lack of care. It came to refer to someone who was basically in an inert state. Early Christian monks took up this word to describe a condition of torpor, apathy, boredom, or just not caring anymore about much of anything. In those monastic circles it came to be called the
devil of the noon day sun and described a spiritual listlessness that had moral overtones. Evagrius Pontus saw it as the most troublesome of evil thought patterns. We are going to think about spiritual laziness in a few days, but today I’d like for you to think about those moments when you just stop caring. (In modern parlance this word has been picked up to talk about depression. I am not talking about depression! Depression is a serious illness that must be treated in a multidisciplinary way. It is not a spiritual characteristic that can be picked up or relinquished in the way we are talking about in these devotions.) One of the things I have noticed recently among many of my friends is that they have just thrown up their hands in the face of too much injustice, too much violence and too much change. I get it. It is hard to carry the world’s sorrow. It is hard to watch the news. It is hard to go to one more protest. It is hard to hold one more grieving mom in your arms. Being the body of Christ is hard. It just is. We need to constantly monitor our reactions and our need for rest and renewal so that we are not so overwhelmed that we fall into acedia. We must guard against becoming so overloaded that we can no longer feel because our caring mechanism is over loaded, and our coping skills have crashed. Sometimes we fall into acedia when we feel helpless to affect a positive outcome in a situation. Jesus seems to constantly prove his statement that the poor will be with us always no matter how many food banks we fill and empty, no matter how many vigils we hold or council meetings we attend. Sometimes to cope we have to build some boundaries around our hearts, recognizing that while we always have responsibility to care and work, not everything that is happening is happening to us personally. (Except of course in the broadest sense of the human family.) All of us are vulnerable to burnout. That is not an indictment of our faith. We are also responsible for monitoring our spiritual condition so that we can come to Christ for the rest, replenishment, and redirection we so often need. Take a moment ask yourself if you have felt overwhelmed lately. Have you found that your heart has grown a little colder? Have you found that you are bored or listless more than usual? If so, I invite you to repeat today’s verse as a prayer over and over and over. Ask God, not just to relieve your acedia, but to fill your heart to bursting with love, love, gratitude, inspiration and energy. Ask God each day, “O Lord, what is mine to do today?” so that you don’t take on too much or the wrong things. If you are depressed seek support immediately. Contact your church or medical doctor for a confidential referral. There is both help and spiritual power to help you through.
Prayer: Gracious God, sometimes we lose heart. Please forgive us. We know that you are always at work in exactly the right way for us and for the world. Show us what is ours to do and fill us with energy and gratitude to do what you ask. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 27 - Injustice – Amos 5:24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
What if we come to understanding abstaining from injustice and working to dismantle injustice as spiritual disciplines necessary for any growth or maturity in faith? Obviously, this concept requires taking up and not just giving up. What exactly does the Bible mean by the word justice as used here by Amos? Perhaps we first need to unlearn some things
in order to understand. Often when we use the word justice we are talking about accountability. If someone has been harmed or killed, we often see family members on TV calling for justice. What they want is accountability, or perhaps even revenge and eye for an eye. (By the way, that is a misuse of the Biblical mandate of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. That instruction was actually intended to be merciful and to make sure that punishments were always proportional to the harm. You couldn’t stone somebody to death for stealing your goat. That is for unpacking another day.) In our day when we think of justice it is often tinged with retribution and seen as a way of balancing the scales of pain. The problem with that view is that it just produces more pain, more heartache and more death. So, what is Biblical justice at its heart? It is not about people getting what they deserve, mercifully, or we would all be done for. Biblical justice is about ALL people getting what God desires for them to have. It is about all people having access to God’s dreams. Biblical justice is about dismantling any structure, process, pattern of thought, private behavior or system of society that leaves any person or group unable to access the fullness of life for which they were created. That is what Amos is praying can flow into and through each of us, each church, each community, and every nation with all its systems and priorities. Justice is about ensuring that each person has the resources needed for the fullness of life and that nothing that blocks that is allowed to stand. For this reason, we talk about justice ministries as systemic change. For example, we dismantle racism not by changing the way we feel, as laudable as that may be. We dismantle racism by changing the way things are done and by changing the eyes through which we see speak and listen. We do justice not by our punishments (that is another thing altogether.) We do justice by changing the situation that underlies hopelessness, helplessness, and oppression. What injustices do you see around you? How might you refuse to participate with it? How might you fast from its processes and priorities?
Prayer: Gracious God, today we release the hold of injustice on our lives. No longer will we mindlessly participate in systems that rob your children of the lives you dream for them. We are done with it. Remove its traces from our hearts and let your justice pour on us and through us to your world. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 28 - Hopelessness – Romans 5:1-2 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the Glory of God.
This soaring statement is one of those verses that should be pinned on our mirrors or framed on our desks. Here in a nutshell Paul tells us who we are, what Christ has done for us and what that means for today and eternity. God’s grace has broken down every barrier, our simple trust in that truth allows us to live at peace with God, with no fear or shrinking away. Christ is like the password that opens an entirely different operating system that is based on love. Love is the 0 and the 1 in our code. It has become our very DNA. Grace, grace, and inexhaustible grace is the story of our lives and will be for all eternity. We cannot be separated from it. We cannot run out of it. We cannot ever outrun it. Because the eternal grace of God in Christ is our reality and because we choose to trust it, we live in hope. When Paul says that we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God he
means both that we will intimately share with God in fullness in heaven. He also, and even more astoundingly, means that we will share in God’s glory in our selves. In other words, we will come, by grace alone, to look more and more like Jesus every day from now on. We will become God’s glory. In ways that are impossible to define or comprehend, we are reflectors of that glory already. And all it took was trusting that God’s grace in Christ Jesus is enough for us. Sometimes it feels that we are living in a hope starved time. All around anger, violence and bad news gets to most air time and sucks up the energies of the age. Pandemic fatigued people are so overwhelmed with the notion that things are getting worse that they can’t actually see that things are getting better. We are programmed to respond to bad news and so good news hardly registers and bad news is either normalized or so fatiguing we are drained of hope that things can be different. But here is the thing: things are already different. It just takes eyes to see, and the tiniest bit of trust, to experience. Can you think of any situation with which you feel hopeless? Name that situation right now and speak today’s verse into it. For example, perhaps you feel hopeless at work or about an issue like gun violence. In a prayerful attitude say to God, Even at work (or as I hear of another shooting) I know that, since I am justified by faith, I have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom I have obtained access to this grace in which I stand; and I boast in my hope of sharing the Glory of God even in this situation that is causing me pain. And claim this for all involved. Therefore, no hopeless can touch me, no despair derail me.
Prayer: Gracious God, your word, your grace, your presence are my hope. Help me to be a hopeful presence in my every interaction. Fill my heart, and every heart, with hope and a vision of your glory. Let it show to others. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 29 - Thinking Too Much - Matthew 6:28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.
Earlier this Lenten season we considered the common spiritual toxin of worry. (Feb. 26) That day we thought about the general things that we worry about, our daily provision, our safety, and the safety of family. Today I’d like you to consider an aspect of how worry actually works in your life. I am writing this on Valentine’s Day after staying up much of the night watching the horrific unfolding of yet another senseless mass shooting on the campus of Michigan State University. Looking at the scene, hearing the announcers, many of whom are young moms themselves, unsuccessfully trying to report without their voices breaking, listening to students who had been playing video games with friends or doing homework a moment before, trying to explain what they were going through with flat affect and a near total inability to find a name for their feelings was heart rending. Not to mention that it all unfolded on the fifth anniversary of the shooting at Marjorie Stillman Douglas High School in Florida. Not to mention that a lot of us have numbed out to the daily carnage of gun violence in our nation. As I lay awake stewing about all of this, praying and sending love into another untenable situation, I remembered a story from years ago when I was a pastor in Denver. In those days, there was a large Hmong population in the area. Our congregation was committed to refugee resettlement and
support. To the utter consternation of the medical community, young Hmong men were dying in their sleep. They could not explain it. One of the wives when asked, however, said she knew exactly why the men were dying: processed foods, evil spirits and thinking too much. At the time that explanation made me smile. Today, however I get it. When we ruminate too much about too much it saps our strength and makes it difficult for us to be the solution to problems that our lives and world so desperately need. Thinking too much and doing too little can kill off even our trust that God might use us for something mighty. I am not saying that careful, prayerful analysis and planning are inappropriate. They are vital. Still, until our ‘thoughts and prayers’ end with an amen that is prayerful, courageous action, we are not instruments of God and thinking too much might soothe our hearts and consciences for a moment, but we will not be the instruments of the kingdom for which we were born. If you are ready to move from overthinking a problem into wise action, I invite you to harness that energy, offer it to God and do the thing that rises as true, honest, loving and just in your heart.
Prayer: Gracious God, today please help us not to use our thinking about our problems as a substitute for acting to alleviate our problems in the specific ways that you direct us. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.
March 30 -Spiritual Sloth - Romans 12:11 Do not lag in zeal. Be ardent in spirit. Serve the Lord.
In this verse the one word in Greek that we translate as the ‘lag in zeal’ comes from the root for ‘to shrink away from, to become small in the presence of, or to find something irksome and flee from it. It is not exactly a word for laziness as much as it is for energy depleting desire to avoid or hide. Sometimes this energy depleting urge to shrink away can even show up in our spiritual lives and practice. It often shows up right at the point where we are about to experience a significant breakthrough, healing, insight, or new mission. Years ago, when I had just graduated from college with my degree in Creative Writing and was working as a waitress at Joe Namath’s restaurant in my college town of Tuscaloosa, I was very unsettled spiritually. I knew that God was trying to get my attention, but I was scared. Finally, when God woke me in the night with the call to go to seminary (I had never seen a woman pastor) I came up with every excuse under the sun. My personal favorite, looking back, was my childish wailing that I would never get to wear my little black strapless cocktail dress again and it wasn’t even paid for. When I tossed that one heavenward, I was greeted with a vast silence both from above and from within. I was so frightened. (Where, I do not know, did I get the idea that God would call me to something I would hate?) In the weeks that followed that night, my zeal lagged. My prayer life sputtered. Worship lost its allure. I was adrift in a way that including fleeing the irksome, and shrinking for the new way. I wasn’t lazy. I was a coward. So, I entered into a period of soul that the ancients call Sloth, one of the seven deadly sins. I stopped growing in Christ because I did not want to go where I was sure God was leading. It didn’t last too long, mercifully, a couple of months. Many of us, however, have the experience of sloth that lasts for a moment or even for years. We are afraid to move forward or go deep so we stand still, as if internally frozen. Nothing moves. Like a sloth, we slow to a near standstill
and any movement is laborious. Can you think of a time when you found God’s call irksome? Can you think of a time when you were nearly immobilized in your spiritual life? What do you think was going on with you? If you are experiencing sloth now, are you ready to trust that God loves you and only wants joy for you? Are you willing to consider that you were made for this moment? Are you ready to release your pent-up spiritual energy? If so, then toss your spiritual sloth in the laundry basket and watch what happens next!
Prayer: Gracious God, awaken my spiritual energies today! Remove my fear and sloth. Use me as you see fit! In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.
March 31 - Spiritual Arrogance – James 4:16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.
Ok, I’ve got one for you. How do we think about spiritual arrogance without being spiritually arrogant? Sometimes, we are more beset by arrogance than sloth. This is a wily one because God does love for us to celebrate accomplishment and to encourage one another when we have learned something new or taken a deeper step in discipleship. The problem comes when we cease to celebrate a gift or insight or grace, and begin to claim that it was all our own doing and that we and we alone have figured everything out. We have the answers! We have the only answers. So, the rest of you poor slobs should just get on board with the way we see things. Or else. It doesn’t take long for us to move from thinking that our ideas and insights are better and truer, to thinking that we ourselves are better and truer. When, in our own minds, we are in a one up position with another one down, we can easily feel justified in doing just about anything to the ‘wrong’ other person. We can conquer their lands. We can dismiss them from our churches. We can burn them at the stake, literally or physically. Humility recedes and our opinions, understandings and fears become our God’s. Evangelism can even become abuse in the name of Love itself. Can you think of a time when you experienced a time of spiritual arrogance yourself? How did that manifest itself? Have you ever been on the receiving end of someone else’s spiritual arrogance? How did that feel? What happened in that relationship? If you are ready to identify and release spiritual arrogance from your heart and actions, you will need the Spirit’s help. Most of the time we see our arrogance as faithfulness and only the Spirit can truly open our eyes to our motives and the harm we do. So today, take a moment to ask for the help you need. A moment of humbling won’t kill you. It might actually make you whole.
Prayer: Gracious God, today please show me any tendency to spiritual arrogance. Help me to release that tendency to you and do no harm to any of your beloved children. In Jesus’ holy name I pray. Amen.