Tag Archives: Lent

Justus Hunter ~ Lent: There Is a River and There Is a City

There is a river and there is a city.
There is a river
And its streams make glad.
There is a city
And its streams make glad
And God inhabits the city
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God
The holy habitation of the most high.
And God is in the middle of it
And God will not be moved.

There is a river and there is a city.

So why go into the ashes?

There was river and there was a garden.
There was a river
And its streams made the garden glad.

And the streams made glad a tree. And the fruit of the tree swelled with knowledge. And the fruit of the tree spoiled with death. And a couple came and they ate, and from them came the rest.

And the rest built cities. And among the rest, some had much and some had little. And so, among the rest, some were made to carry and others made them carry. And so the rest made cities. And the cities grew hungry. The cities hungered, and they foamed.

The cities hungered and foamed, and their hunger bore fruit, fruit swollen with knowledge and spoiled with death. The cities hungered and foamed, and their ripplings went round the world, cresting with promises. And the ripplings rebounded, crossed back, and swept the peoples and promises in their swell. From wilderness, desert, forest, and plain they were swept. They were swept into the cities, and the cities teemed with people. And the cities teemed with promises.

The cities teemed and roiled and spewed forth promises, promise upon promise. And one city ate another. Its promises consumed the promises of the other. And the cities and their promises grew. And so the ones made to carry grew to pursue the promises. And the ones made to carry built promises for the city. They worked miracles, making brick and laying brick. They worked miracles, making bricks with no straw, laying bricks with no straw. And so the cities built their promises.

Now the ones made to carry, the ones working the miracles, they did not forget their promise:

 There is a river whose streams make glad.

The ones made to carry did not forget. Their promise lived on. But the promise lived as the soft accompaniment of absence. There, in the other cities, they lived on other promises, promises created by the city and for the city, promises dreamt by the ones who made them carry. And still their promise lived on – There is a river whose streams make glad. – but it lived on as absence. And as absence, the promise spoiled and turned to sorrow.

And then the Word of the Lord came and spoke again the promise.

There is a river and there is a city.
There is a river
And its streams make glad.
There is a city
And its streams make glad
And God inhabits the city
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God
The holy habitation of the most high.
God is in the middle of it
And God will not be moved.

The ones made to carry left their bricks behind and the Word of the Lord led them through the waters and back into the wilderness and the desert. They wandered far from the cities. And there, far from the hungers and foamings of the cities, they remembered the promise. There, in the wilderness, the most high made a holy habitation in their midst. It came into the middle of them. And with them, it moved, it wandered.

And so they built a city. And though there was no river, there were springs, and its springs made the city glad. And they built channels for the springs, and the channels fed terraces for their gardens. And there they grew trees, and on the trees grew fruit. There they built a holy habitation of the most high. And the most high came and was in the middle of it.

And they thought this is the city that will make glad. They built their city. They sought the promise. But then they remade the promise in their own image. They sought their own justice.

And the city turned. Its kings doubted the promise. And so they remade it in their own image, and once again the promises grew. And the city roiled and spewed forth promises, promises upon promises. And they promised their own justice and their own freedom from oppression. And once again, some of the rest were made to carry. And the ones made to carry built the city her promises.

The city turned. Its promises grew, and it ate other cities. But then other cities ate it. And the city burned, and her promises turned to ash. And the promises could not be told one from the other because ash is only ash. Ash does not remember.

So all the people, the ones who made carry and the ones made to carry, tumbled. The people were swept from their city to other cities. And once again the promise was theirs only as the soft accompaniment of absence. The promise was there as sorrow. And then the city swept them back, and they lived among the ashes of their promises.

The people lived among the ashes of their promises. And the people fasted and tried to remember. But the promise had spoiled, and the ashen promises of the cities overwhelmed them.

And the Word of the Lord came again. But this time, the promise came as judgment.

Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the promise of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
They say, “Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all the ones you make carry.
You fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

The Word of the Lord came again. The promise was spoken again, but this time as judgment. The people sat among the ashes of their promises, promises made in their own image. The people sat among the ashes. And yet, they could not make the fast the Lord had chosen. Though they sat among the ashes, the could not humble themselves. And other cities grew hungry, and one city ate another, and one city of ash replaced the next, and one ashen promise followed another. And the people tumbled.


Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

So why go into the ashes?

Lent is a season that begins in ashes and ends in death. Lent is born in ash and dies in the descent to the dead.

Lent is a season for fasting, a season for bowing down, a season for exchanging silk for sackcloth. Lent is a season for ashes.

Lent is a season of judgment. Lent is a season of the judgment that will renew within us the promise. “There is a city.”

Lent is a season of clarity. We already sit among the ashes. We already sit in cities made in our own image. We already run after promises made to ourselves. We already seek our own paths to our own justice. And we already know, our own cities and our own promises and our own justice end in the ashes.

Lent is a season of clarity. It is a season to remember – from ash we came, and to ash, we will return. It is a season to remember – though we have the hope of a city that will not reduce to ash, though we have the hope of a promise that, once fulfilled, will bring an end to the foaming after more promises, though we have the hope for a justice founded in the righteousness of God, a justice that shares in God’s own eternal righteousness – we do not have this city or this promise or this justice as a possession. We have it as a promise. And so we must hold it as a promise.

And what is it to hold a thing as a promise?

To hold as a promise is to be cleansed by the truth, the truth which pierces us as judgment: we sit among the ashes of our promises. We do not come to the ashes from outside. We are awakened to the ashes already among us. We cannot resist replacing the promise of God with promises made in our own image. We cannot resist substituting the City of God with cities of our own making. From ash we have come. To ash we will return.

We hold the promise – There is a river and there is a city. There is a river and its streams make glad.

We hold the promise as a promise.

Before Christ’s final Lenten descent, his descent to the dead, he comes to the gate of that city of ash, that city where the most high dwelt. He comes to the gate and he cries out:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

The Word of the Lord comes again. But the Word of the Lord comes not merely on the lips of this prophet, but on the lips of this prophet who is the Word become flesh, the Word dwelling among us. The Word comes in this man, Jesus Christ, the holy habitation of the most high. The Word comes in this man, Jesus Christ, the living God in the middle of us, in the center of the rise and fall of our hungry cities and our ashen promises.

The Word of God comes again, and cries out:

“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate.”  You sit among the ashes.

And I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

Happy is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

Glad is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

There is a river and there is a city.
There is a river
And its streams make glad.
There is a city
And its streams make glad
And God inhabits the city
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God
The holy habitation of the most high.
And God is in the middle of it
And God will not be moved.

So why go into the ashes?

There is a river and there is a city. But we have forgotten the way. And so the Way comes to us. And the Way guides us: Into the ashes. Through the ashes…

Carolyn Moore ~ From Dust and Ashes to the Image of God

Simcha Bunim was a Jewish rabbi who lived in Poland in the 1700s. He is best known for what might be called the parable of the two pockets.

The parable begins with two slips of paper. On one slip is written, “I am dust and ashes.” On the other slip is written, “For my sake the world was created.” These two slips of paper are meant to be carried around in two pockets.

Rabbi Bunim said, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: ‘For my sake was the world created.’ But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: ‘I am dust and ashes.’”

The rabbi’s point was that we are at once both things. We are both sinners and saints, dust and treasure, limited but with tremendous potential, fallen but loved. And we ought to approach our goals and lives with that mindset. Christians would say we are fallen people for whom Christ died.

Dust, yes … but dust so loved by God that he gave his Son.

What if you entered into Rabbi Bunim’s exercise? Write these two statements on slips of paper, then spend time with each of them. Begin with the one with which you are less comfortable. Which of these two statements resonates with you?

Are you more of the mindset that the world was created with you at the center? Many of us live there a bit too comfortably, whether we admit it or not. We are the center of our universe. We will make sure our own interests are served and we will let pride keep us from learning the hard lessons. We are the ones who need a little more time with our dust-and-ashes reality — to understand that our value isn’t self-generated. It comes from God. And because our value comes from God, we have a certain responsibility to steward our days well, because even if we hit the ball out of the park today, we’re still going to die. Our time here is a gift, and our assurance of a life beyond this one rests not on our merits but on Christ’s.

Not all of us need more dust and ashes. Some of us have lost sight of the fact that we bear the image of God. We live in too much self-condemnation, self-hatred … self. We live self-protectively because we have not yet owned our value and strength. We short-change ourselves by low-balling our value. We who live too much in dust and ashes need to remember that we are not here simply to exist but to make a difference. For our sake, the world was created. God thinks highly of us! In light of that, our challenge is to stop making excuses for why we can’t do more and decide that even if we can’t do everything, we can do something.

Let me say that again: Even if we can’t do everything, we can do something. 

This is the mindset of abundance, which is at the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ. His victory over sin and death are my assurance that I don’t do any of this on my own effort, skills or abilities. I do all of life in partnership with God, the creator of the universe, and if God is in it then anything is possible.

Which is your mindset?

Dust and ashes … or abundance?

Dust and ashes … or image of God?

Limit, or possibility?

This is the shift I want for you this year. I want you to move from “why me” thinking to “what now” thinking.

Maybe you can’t do everything you’d like, but you can do something.

What will it be?


Reprinted with permission from www.artofholiness.com.

Andy Stoddard ~ To Observe a Holy Lent

As we prepare to enter into the season of Lent, there is always a call to fasting.  That is one of the definitive features of this time of Lent.  It is a time to pull back from all the abundance of our life, particularly for those of us in the West, and to refocus ourselves upon God, on our great need for him, and on the mercy that he provides over and over again.

We see this call with the Ash Wednesday Service Liturgy within the United Methodist Church:

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church,

   to observe a holy Lent:

   by self–examination and repentance;

   by prayer, fasting, and self–denial;

   and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.

I’ve always had a little bit of an awkward relationship with Lent.  On one hand, I know that it’s necessary.  I know that we must repent of our sins, turn from them, refocus and shift our lives towards God.  We need this.

But for me, one of my key verses is Romans 2:4, “Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”  We repent because of the kindness of Christ. 

So Lent can leave me feeling a little uneasy.  We need to focus on sin. We need to focus on fasting and discipline.  We need to focus on our great need for God.

But we also need to remember that as much as we search for God, God is calling out for us.  We are loved.  We are valued. We are of sacred worth.

We fast to refocus.  But refocus on what?

Not our human frailty.

Not our human loss.

Not our human weakness.

We focus on the goodness of God.

The grace of God.

The love of God that does not beat us down or break us apart.

The love of God that does not make us feel inadequate or unworthy.  No, that’s not the love of God.

The love of God reminds us that we are made in his image. We are called by his name. We are him.

The love of God builds up.

We fast to clear away the noise and the pain and the hurt.  We fast to tune our hearts to his grace. We fast, even in the midst of our pain and brokenness, not to be torn down.

No, we fast to be built up.  To be reminded of what matters and where life is found. We fast so that our ears can properly hear that voice of God, calling out to us.

In this season of Lent, no matter where you find yourself, may we all commit to a holy Lent.  May we fast.  May we pray. And may we hear the voice of our God calling us back, once again, to the healing power of his love.

May this be for us all a holy Lent.

Becoming My Prayers

Note from the Editor: This timely word is reprinted from the original February 2014 post

I frequently do workshops on prayer, which I always find kind of odd because I’ve never felt myself to be much of an expert on that kind of thing. Prayer is hard work for me; it’s meaningful, but it’s hard. During my workshops I always focus at some point on intercessory prayer – prayer for needs beyond our own – and every time I do, a cartoon I saw years ago pops into my head: A guy sees a friend across the church parking lot. In the bubble above his head he thinks, “Uh oh! I told Bob I’d pray for him! … Dear God, bless Bob.” Then he waves and says, “Hey Bob! Been praying for ya!”

There are a lot of levels to intercession – praying for needs beyond our own – but every time I think of this cartoon I’m reminded of an important truth: praying for others isn’t so much about rattling off the words of our prayers (even if those words are more genuine than in the cartoon). It’s about becoming our prayers. I believe God responds to our prayers – there’s mystery here I know, but I believe it despite and maybe even because of that mystery. The interesting thing about praying for needs that aren’t our own is that many times God’s response is not as much directly about those needs as it is directly about us.

When I pray for the hungry, I know God responds, but that response almost always includes, “I hear you, I’m working, but what are you going to do about the hungry?” When I pray for people who are lonely, I know God responds, but that response almost always includes, “Okay, Kim. You know I’m a comfort to the lonely, but what are you going to do? How are you going to bring that person comfort?” At every turn it’s the same. “What are you going to do?” At every turn I realize it’s not just about the words of my prayers, even though they’re important, it’s about becoming my prayers.

Now this shouldn’t be a massive revelation; but it’s significant for me as I approach the season of Lent. During Lent we often focus on sacrifice. People give something up as a part of their spiritual discipline. I frequently give up diet coke, which those who know me, know isn’t an easy thing. Often I also fast twice a week. Also not an easy thing, at least for me. So I know that during the next several weeks I’m going to have to decide what kind of spiritual discipline I will undertake to mark the season.

So why is the idea of becoming my prayers so significant for me right now? I’m not sure, but I think it has to do with a passage from Isaiah that seems to enter my mind every time I begin to think about engaging in any kind of “self-denial project”:

Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast. Shout aloud! Don’t be timid. Tell my people Israel of their sins! Yet they act so pious! They come to the Temple every day and seem delighted to learn all about me. They act like a righteous nation that would never abandon the laws of its God. They ask me to take action on their behalf, pretending they want to be near me.

‘We have fasted before you!’ they say. ‘Why aren’t you impressed? We have been very hard on ourselves, and you don’t even notice it!’

I will tell you why! It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves. Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers. What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes.

Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord? No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal…

Remove the heavy yoke of oppression. Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors! Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. (Isaiah 58:1-8, 10)

I often talk about “speaking faith,” which for me means (among other things) giving life to our ideas and beliefs by speaking them aloud. Moving them from the realm of our personal, interior selves to an external realm where they can become infectious and dynamic. That’s the kind of thing I want to happen to my prayers, to my fasting, to whatever self-denial I decide to undertake. I want to move them beyond my interior self. I want them to make a difference beyond the inner realm of my own personal spirituality.

In Healing of Purpose, John E. Biersdorf writes, “As an act of love, prayer is a courageous act. It is a risk we take. It is a life-and-death risk, believing in the promises of the gospel, that God’s love is indeed operative in the world. In prayer we have the courage, perhaps even the presumption and the arrogance or the audacity to claim that God’s love can be operative in the very specific situations of human need that we encounter.”

I believe God’s love can be operative in very specific situations of human need, that’s why I pray. But there’s a very real sense in which that love becomes operative only when I become my prayer, when I become my fast, when I become my self-denial. That’s when it becomes pleasing to God. That’s when God’s light shines out from the darkness and our darkness becomes as light as day.

Jeff Rudy ~ Jesus Weeps, Our Tears to See

Among the sources I consult in sermon preparation, two I investigate for nearly every sermon are The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, which compiles writings from the fathers and mothers of the first few centuries of the Church, and John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the Bible. I’m considering adding a third – The Poetical Writings of (John and) Charles Wesley. It’s not that I go by the “three points and a poem” philosophy of sermon-writing, but often I do find times that there are meaningful lyrics from a hymn (sometimes well-known, sometimes more obscure) that speak to the point I aim to convey in a message.

When it came to the fifth Sunday in Lent in Year A of the lectionary cycle, with the Gospel lesson that tells the story of Lazarus’ death and Jesus bringing him back to life (John 11:1-45), I found myself drawn toward the way Jesus engaged the grieving community and expressed grief himself. It is more than a mere fascination with the theological questions that arise from the statement that “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). It is that grief has been hitting rather close to home and it feels as though the community I pastor has endured more than its fair share of untimely deaths. Because it is part of the time-tested liturgy of death and resurrection, I have said multiple times recently, “Jesus said, ‘I am resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die’.” Words that come directly from this Gospel lesson. But the liturgy also says, “We come together in grief, acknowledging our human loss.” When I read and when I hear, “Jesus wept,” I see that Jesus comes together in grief with us, and acknowledges our human loss. As John Donne said, “If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.”

Poetry speaks in ways that prose cannot, especially in times of grief. So I did some searching to see if Charles Wesley ever mused specifically on this passage, particularly about Jesus weeping. I knew that he occasionally used the phrase “vale of tears” in hymns. In one of my favorites of Charles’ meditations on the mystery of the Incarnation as revealed in his Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord, he speaks to the empathetic nature of the Incarnation:

Glory be to God on high, And peace on earth descend;
God comes down: He bows the sky, And shows Himself our Friend!
God the’ invisible appears, God, the blest, the great I AM,
Sojourns in this vale of tears, And Jesus is His name.

I dug around some more and found one in a collection of hymns written for families. These hymns, like the psalms, come from or speak to different experiences – some quite specific, others more general – and they express a wide variety of feelings toward God, ranging from thanksgiving and adoration to supplication to bitter grief. The hymn I came upon that had a reference to Jesus weeping was under the heading of “For a Child in the Small-Pox.” In the midst of what would have been an agonizing time for the parents as they prayed through tears that God might bring healing to their child, Charles offered lyrics that help us to embrace this sort of grief and to not hold back in pouring out our hearts to God:

…Human tears may freely flow
Authorised by tears Divine,
Till Thine awful will we know,
Comprehend Thy whole design;
Jesus wept! and so may we:
Jesus, suffering all Thy will,
Felt the soft infirmity;
Feels His creatures sorrows still

Father of our patient Lord,
Strengthen us with Him to grieve.
Prostrate to receive Thy word,
All Thy counsel to receive:
Though we would the cup decline,
Govern’d by Thy will alone,
Ours we struggle to resign:
Thine, and only Thine, be done.

Life and death are in Thine hand:
In Thine hand our child we see
Waiting on Thy benign command,
Less beloved by us than Thee.
Need we then his life request?
Jesus understands our fears,
Reads a mother’s panting breast,
Knows the meaning of her tears.

Jesus blends them with His own,
Mindful of His suffering days:
Father, hear Thy pleading Son,
Son of Man for us He prays:
What for us He asks, bestow:
Ours He makes His own request:
Send us life or death; we know,
Life, or death from Thee is best.

There’s the internal struggle of agonizing desire for the child to be made well versus the feared need for resignation that it might not turn out the way the parents want. There is wonderment and humility expressed in the admission that this child is loved even more by God than by the parents themselves (“Less beloved by us than Thee”). But it all centers on the sympathy and empathy of the Incarnation – of Jesus’ familiarity with our fears, our hopes, and yes, our tears.

And then I dug just a bit deeper and looked in the collection for what I see as Charles’ version of the Explanatory Notes – only in hymnic, or poetic, form: Hymns on the Four Gospels. And here he pictured it so beautifully in what I would call “a hopeful grief.”

And now, if you’ll allow me to step onto a soapbox, I think that’s Paul’s point when he told the Thessalonians to “not grieve as those who have no hope.” He wasn’t telling them not to grieve at all. Some must think that he did because I see those poems on the back of funeral announcements sometime that just make me want to scream – something like “Don’t cry for me, for now I’m free…” It’s sentimentalized in the popular notion that humans become angels when we die (not a biblical concept). It’s conveyed in the statement that, “it was just their time” or, “they’re not really there/that’s just a shell/that body isn’t her (or him).”

To rebut this, I am reminded of the wisdom of a boy, who when told that the body in the casket isn’t where his grandfather was, said in reply, “What do you mean, that’s not my grandfather? Those hands cared for me. Those are the arms that took me up and hugged me. Those are the lips that spoke to me; the eyes that searched for me; the chest on which I fell asleep, knowing I was safe in his love. Everything I have ever known of my grandfather was through this body.” To tell someone not to cry, however well-intended it might be, is to deny them the dignity that even Jesus embraced – “Jesus wept” or “Jesus began to weep” or “Jesus burst into tears.”

However voluntary or involuntary it might have been, we see that Jesus grieved. And here’s the irony – he grieved with the likely knowledge (or at least confidence) in what was about to happen – Lazarus made alive again. Why, then, does Jesus cry? To grieve with us – as Charles Wesley surmised – to see our tears: that death is real. And yet, hope lives. That’s the paradox. Our hope begins, mysteriously, in the tears of a weeping Lord. A grief that hopes. Here is Charles’ take. (If you want to sing this, it fits well with several well-known tunes quite nicely, including: Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, and Hymn of Promise to name a few.)

Jesus weeps, our tears to see! Feels the soft infirmity;
Feels, whene’er a friend we mourn, From our bleeding bosom torn:
Let him still in spirit groan, Make our every grief his own,
Till we all triumphant rise, Called to meet him in the skies.


Jeff Rudy ~ What If I Get Nothing Out of Lent?

“What if I get nothing out of Lent?”

We’re so pragmatic!

We want results, or if nothing else, explanations. It is so like us to approach in this way even these times in the liturgical seasons that urge us to take a break from something for a few weeks. “What sort of epiphany am I going to discover through this practice? What golden nugget of truth will I dig up by giving up chicken nuggets and their kind during these 40 days?”

Or even if we’re in some other season of life that is awfully burdensome and beyond our control, we are so frequently prone to think, “What am I supposed to be learning in this time?” or “What is God trying to teach me?” Often these ponderings come from a premise that is more cliché than it is true – “There’s a reason for everything.” Really?

Thomas Merton once wrote: “We cannot avoid missing the point of almost everything we do. But what of it? Life is not a matter of getting something out of everything. Life itself is imperfect. All created beings begin to die as soon as they begin to live…” Well, that’s awfully morbid, Fr. Merton! But these words are not all that different than the ones I spoke to those who gathered for the imposition of ashes last week: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Numerous people come forward who have just lost a friend to death from pancreatic cancer four days prior. Another with tears in her eyes just brought her husband home from the hospital…a husband who had pancreatic cancer six years ago and still has days and weeks where the effects take their toll on his health. Children looking up at me in their innocence with a smile on their face as I kneel down and tell them the same thing I tell the 90-year-old woman who makes her way forward with a walker to the chancel to receive the ashes: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is closer for some than others.

“What am I supposed to be learning in all this? What can I get out of this?” And I’m wondering if I need to learn to be content with this response: “Perhaps nothing.” I’m not trying to be nihilistic, but I wonder if lingering too long looking for some hidden meaning or hoping for an epiphany might not provide the satisfactory explanation I desire. Perhaps the only desire that can only be fully satisfied, as Merton had said earlier, is “…the desire to be loved by God.”

One of the passages for that somber day – Ash Wednesday – is from the prophet Joel, who speaks to a people who are coming to grips with their own frailty as a nation – threatened by either: (1) a mighty Assyrian empire with an overpowering military; (2) a plague of locusts that would devour their crop and drastically affect their livelihood and health; or (3) both. Speculation can abound as to theodicy – why was this evil coming upon them? “It’s punishment from God for their unfaithfulness.” “It’s to enter into suffering so they can grow in their awareness and dependence on God.” And so on. For Joel’s situation, there seemed to be a clear explanation as to why – they understood it as punishment for their unfaithfulness, their lack of trust in God to provide whatever they needed.

The explanations might look different in our frail circumstances. But what stands out to me is that his response gives utterance to a resignation from trying to control the outcome and rather to simply do the right thing – to repent in dust and ashes. After the call to repent, to return to the Lord, Joel offers up a rather peculiar, ambiguous outcome. “Who knows whether [the Lord] will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him…” (Joel 2:14). Quite an interesting level of uncertainty in the prophet’s words. “Who knows…?”

In grief, in contemplation and a growing awareness of our own mortality, in view of circumstances that are beyond our control, in humility, and in repentance of past mistakes, we turn to God with ashes on our heads in the shape of the cross – the ultimate sign of mortality and the reminder of what it cost our Redeemer Jesus to rescue us from the pit of death.

And so, among other things I’m giving up for Lent, I’m trying to give up the search to find some other hidden meaning. Perhaps I won’t get anything out of it. We don’t enter into the Lenten season practicing disciplines in order to achieve a particular return. It’s not an investment. Fasting and praying are not disciplines that we engage in in order to “cash in” on some prize later. Whether we offer the prepared prayers of the liturgies or in extemporaneous manner, it is not for the sake of getting what we want, as if God were a vending machine sort of divine being – but our prayers, our fasting, our disciplines…these are for the sake of training our minds and bodies and souls to grow in our desire to be loved by God and to take one step closer in our desire to faithfully follow Jesus. And when the former is realized, the latter may be more likely to become a part of who we are as we find ourselves embracing those who are poor or grieving or meek or lonely or embattled or any other attribute so given by Jesus in the beatitudes – and doing this in compassion, carrying on our foreheads, but more importantly in our hearts and actions, the sign of the cross.

Who knows? Maybe there’s nothing more to get out of it than to know that we are loved by God. Isn’t that enough?

Kimberly Reisman ~ I Am For My Beloved

I’m reading a poetry anthology, The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World compiled by Ivan Granger.* It’s dovetailing nicely with the Lenten season, although I can’t really take credit for that.

One of the poems was particularly meaningful for me – On Those Words “I am for My Beloved.” It was written by Teresa of Avila after a deeply mystical encounter in which she experienced an angel piercing her heart with divine love.

Already I gave my self completely,

and have changed in such a way

That my Beloved is for me

and I am for my Beloved.


When the gentle hunter shot me

and left me in all my weakness,

in the arms of love

my soul fell

and being charged with new life

I have changed in such a way

That My Beloved is for me

And I am for my Beloved.


He pierced me with an arrow

laced with the herbs of love

and my soul became one

with her Creator;

I no longer want another love,

since I have given myself to my God,

That My Beloved is for me

and I am for my Beloved.

(English version by Megan Don)


As I meditated on Teresa’s words, they cradled me, assured me, comforted me.

…in all my weakness, in the arms of love…

…My Beloved is for me…

I might have stopped there, but her words continued, this time with challenge.

…charged with new life

…I have been changed…

…I have given myself to God…

…I am for my Beloved…

I wrestled with the juxtaposition between comfort and challenge. Then my eyes were drawn to Granger’s commentary, which led me deeper still:

When the mind settles and the soul waits in courageously vulnerable readiness, the most amazing thing happens: the heart blooms. The heart opens and expands. Effortlessly, the heart reaches out, with a wider span than we ever imagined possible, embracing all of creation. We become flooded with something beyond feeling or emotion. There is a sense of finally recognizing one’s very nature within the heart, that this is the seat of our being.

When focused inward, we are enraptured, filled with bliss. When focused outward, we are an embodiment of love. We begin to feel so much more, all the world’s suffering and searching and occasional surges of life, and it is all beautiful and somehow a part of us.

As Lent unfolds I realize that my challenge is that of waiting in “courageously vulnerable readiness.” I deeply desire to be an embodiment of love; but do I really understand what it means to have my heart truly “pierced” by God? Can I honestly affirm with Teresa that “I gave myself completely”?

My prayer is that I do and that I can. That would be my prayer for you as well. That we would be able to claim both of Teresa’s truths: I am for my Beloved and My Beloved is for me.


*The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World, a Poetry Chaikhana anthology, edited with commentary by Ivan M. Granger, 2014 (Kindle Edition).

Tammie Grimm ~ Fasting for Wholeness

“The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it is also, oddly, that part which was to have been the very point. It is the original key passage, the passage on which the rest was to hang, and from which you drew the courage to begin.” Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

As I complete edits on my doctoral thesis, I was stupefied to trip over this nugget several weeks ago. A month or so earlier, I heeded the wise advice of my supervisor and ripped out an entire section of a chapter that I had written and formed the whole motivation for my research and writing. It was agonising, and even though that work was at once the genesis and culmination of what I was writing towards, it was the right move. Though a valuable piece of research and writing, it does not “fit” into the thesis as it stands. It has another place in which it can stand on its own merits – but not in the thesis on which I’ve worked so hard for many years.

12705541_10156546912360578_8348237566484010861_nLent is upon us, and I’m drawn back to Annie Dillard’s thought over and over again the last week or so. In recent years, the age-old practice of self-denial and fasting from a particular enjoyment has, in many communities, been approached differently. Rather than view Lent as a time of sacrifice in this season of preparation, a suggestion is to add something healthy or positive to our daily life. The idea is that by adding something good to our lives, whether it be spiritual reading, taking a daily thematic photo or committing to a particular health routine, we must give something up, something extraneous and unnecessary, to make room for the new addition.

There have been years in which my approach to Lent, to give something up, has been to consider Lent as something of a chore. Something to be endured, a prolonged period during which I faithfully swore off chocolate, diet soda or some other item I enjoyed, only to look forward to Easter when I could add it back into my life again guilt-free. And, when I’ve taken the positive approach, adding something new and beneficial has, too often, just been adding one more thing in an overcrowded life.

However, this year, in light of Dillard’s quote, I have considered what it is I need to sacrifice in order to find life — as I did when I jettisoned part of my chapter, parts of my thesis which were (and still are) my favourite bits. How does self-denial allow for the addition of something good? How does fasting bring about wholeness? What parts of me must be cleansed in order for God to do a new work in me? Maybe in approaching Lent differently, there will be a different outcome – something more lasting and true.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God. And renew a right spirit within me” Psalm 51:10

Claire Matheny ~ Lenten Justice

The text for this sermon, Mark 2:13-22, can be read here.

Many of us have suffered a punch-the-clock kind of job. This is the kind of job that you see as a stepping stone, and you hope there may be a day when you do not have to live through its drudgery.

Perhaps even now you currently yearn for the other side of your employment and dream of something else. I first knew this longing after some long hours dedicated to the art of sandwich making. I worked at Lenny’s Sub Shop the summer after my senior year in high school in Memphis, Tennessee.

I knew that I wanted to work at Lenny’s because of the crisp white uniforms and the steady smiles. The employees seemed to be having a good time. It always seemed clean and welcoming, friendly and festive. Did I mention there were also cute boys?

Over the months, the job felt less and less romantic. I think it was the endless slathering of mayonnaise. Mayonnaise and mustard clogged the tread on my shoes. It was smiles that needed to accompany sandwiches even at the end of a hard shift with demanding customers. Every day I came home smelling like bread and cheese. This felt like the kind of job that was okay for a season, but from which I imagined my liberator: college.

Who knows if Levi had ever entertained thoughts of something else in the days leading up to Jesus’ approach. Tax collecting could be a lucrative job if you kept some off the top for yourself. But for those who regularly had to pay the tolls, tax collectors were among the unclean who deal with Gentiles and Gentile money.

And yet, tax collectors were necessary to the system of taxing by which roads were paved and the government was run. We believe that in Levi’s case, he was there at the road border, collecting money from those passing from one area to the next.

I use my EZPass every time I am on Interstate 95. What a convenience to just zip through on the left and never have to feed the meter with coins, or even worse, slow down and extend my trip by exchanging money with a toll booth operator. I just want to get going.

Jesus has no such attitude today. He strolls up to the toll window. In The Message, it says Jesus was strolling along when he asked Levi to go with him. He goes up to the person in charge of the toll and strikes up conversation, casually without insult or anxiety. Levi had been sitting there at the border—a place in between here and there. He invites Levi out of the toll booth, out of the job that hems him in. Jesus must have said some powerfully inviting words and Levi must have needed to hear them.

He wasn’t doing too poorly for himself, Levi, who had a home big enough to accommodate Jesus and a crowd of coworkers reclining for dinner. But this job likely has left him lacking, left him yearning for a Liberator, yearning for the invitation to do something else with his time, with his life. Don’t we all yearn to do meaningful labor? Tax collecting may have been his profession, but only for a season.

Some of the revolutionary nature of this meal is lost on us. And yet, day-in and day-out we tend to eat with people who look like us, who come from similar backgrounds, similar jobs, the same race. If asked why I do not eat with blackjack table dealers, oil tycoons, and adult store owners I could reply that I do not know anybody who holds these professions.

Shame on me.

I think of Jesus, who strolled up to the toll booth in order to have a conversation—not from a place of condescension, throwing coins in Levi’s direction. He strolled up to supposed strangers. There was no one that he did not know.

All of us face the invitation moments where the rubber meets the road: the boundary tax-collecting place where we must shed some of our privilege, our stability, our pride in order to embrace the servanthood of our Savior and the greater good of our neighbor. This is what it means to be a servant—risking self-convenience in order to follow Jesus. 

There was one day mid-summer working at the sandwich shop when Christ invited me to come.  Instead of putting down my apron, I went about my duty placing the pieces of bread together and wrapping it just so in the paper. And I turned my back on Christ and on my coworker.

A couple, a middle-aged man and woman, came into the shop. A child came with them and sat in a table by the door. They approached the counter. My more experienced co-worker Steve and I were ready to make them dinner. They took one look at Steve and then looked at me: “We don’t want him making our sandwich. We don’t want him to touch our food.” I was dense at first and then mystified as they were indicating that because Steve was African-American, they did not want him to serve them. I was in disbelief and stood stock-still until steely-eyed Steve mumbled to me, “you make the sandwiches,” and he went in the back to the office.

The next moments were eternity: my fingers like lead, my 18-year-old head spinning. It was so difficult as they selected their toppings and as I wrapped their sandwiches in the special Lenny’s paper. There were no smiles.  I made the sandwiches with some haste. I wanted this family to be on its way without causing a scene. After all, Steve told me to serve them.

But Jesus was telling me something different. Instead of leaving the toll booth, I stood in place. I was scared and uncertain. I allowed hatred to tighten my apron strings and I ignored a spiritual voice of defiance. I collected the tax, the cost of the sandwich and it seemed to pay my silence.  I gave that couple the EZPass through their racism. I wanted them to leave, in part so I could exhale and exclaim, “Did that really happen? How could this be?” Steve was not as phased as I was; he was more accustomed to the face of this evil.

I should have been more prepared to risk the loss of my crisp white uniform by saying something: “No, I will not make your sandwich.” The security of my job as a sandwich artist was at stake, I suppose. I could not seem to wrap courage around the truth: there is no room for hate in God’s kingdom. All the while, I ached for the child, by the door—on the border of this transaction, the child of that couple.

There are times I have been like a child at the tax-paying color line: my own soul at stake as I learn again the free gift of grace and the trail to Levi’s open table. There are moments that we do not get back in which our consciousness is stirred. Once you have been stirred, you may sit for a while at the boundary of convenience, but there is no going back, not really. Levi cannot get back in the tollbooth—he’s outgrown it. New wine of Jesus’ liberation will not fit in old wineskins.

I went in the middle of a workday this past week somewhere I had been trying to go: the movie theater. I went to see Selma. I paid my toll. Do you know that I did not have to talk to one person in the process? It was one of those machines; I just plugged in my information and out popped a ticket.

On screen, there was the hate-filled system. I watched as the Alabama state troopers beat black protestors on a bridge on Bloody Sunday. Tears rolled down my face. What hope aligned as people of different backgrounds joined forces. Unless we are willing to bend and move alongside our brothers and sisters, there is no forward movement.

How I long to go back and speak up: “I will not make your sandwich.”

I repeat those words again and again as my confession, until they are my redemption. Christ heals. Without confessional voices and actions, large and small, stepping with Jesus, contradicting Pharisees, there are only empty promises of equality.

Here we are stepping into the “stiff wind” wilderness of Lent. At this border, we are called to step away from our convenience, the things that make our lives seemingly comfortable. We examine our covenant. We continue to choose what we may give up, the little things that can be our sacrifices to keep us on target. In a season of contemplative disciplines, how strange it might feel to relinquish our silence.

You have very likely heard in the news about a song that came out of an Oklahoma fraternity—a racist one. After seeing “Selma” and with reflection on my own journey, I thought of all the voices that didn’t cry out and of all the eyes that turned the other way year after year on that campus. I wonder what yet is uncovered, what continues to wound and exclude. I wonder how we give up more of our convenience in order to eat with Jesus.

There is no easy pass through evil, only the road to Jerusalem. There is Christ who wades through the suffering of our deepest hate. And in the wake of his sacrifice, there are no employees, only servants: servants who take step by step away from the booth of duty and towards the gift of healing. Children are looking on. They are lingering by the door, waiting by the door between where we have been and where we are going.

Some of our friends are making sandwiches in the grinding world of customer service. They are trying to scrape together a living wage. They often have to look in the face of discrimination and condescension. We pray for those trapped in below-wage work with no end in sight. We pray for those who day-in and day-out face discrimination as a means to an end, to put food on the table. It was an utter luxury that at the end of the summer I could pursue something else.

I no longer make sandwiches for a living. But by the grace of God, I do preside at Communion.

In worship, we slow down and engage in liturgy. The word liturgy comes from the Greek word meaning “public work” or “public servant.” We are reminded that we are public servants as we worship. We are public servants as we go out and serve. This service, this strolling alongside all those in need of healing is a part of our promise, our covenant as the church.  Jesus’ love is cast to even those who would hate. The tie that binds customer and coworker, binds us at the common meal and common table. There is no punch clock, only our capable hands designed to serve bread to everyone.

Talbot Davis ~ Could You Give Up Porn for Lent? A Pastoral Perspective on Life Change

It happened again a few months ago.

A young man made an appointment with me at the church, came into my office at the expected time, sat down in his chair, glanced around the room, nervous as a cat, and began to speak.

What emerged over the next 15 minutes was a tale of escalating addiction that led to discovery on the part of his wife and with it the threat of expulsion from his home.

What kind of addiction?

The most common kind clergy in the 21st Century face in their role as pastors:  pornography.

You’ll note that I opened by stating that “it happened again last week.”  And the again is not accidental…the odds are that when a man in our church makes an appointment to speak with me, the presenting issue is compulsive use of pornography that has in fact made his life unmanageable.  It impacts men of all ethnicities, nationalities, and even ages – ranging from adolescents to seasoned citizens.

It sometimes leads to trouble with the law.  It often leads to difficulty with the family.  It always results in disconnection from the self.

The rise of the internet has created a perfect storm for growing numbers of men to become addicted to looking at and masturbating to pornographic images.  It is available.  It is anonymous.  I suspect no other generation of men – or their pastors – had such a collision of forces that are the same time both irresistible and destructive.

So what is a pastor to do when faced with this kind of epidemic?

Well, through trial and error at Good Shepherd Church, we have devised a protocol for those times when porn comes into a pastor’s office.  The protocol stems not only from the frequency with which the addiction comes calling but also my familiarity with and appreciation for Twelve Step Programs.  What you will read below is a system we talk about on-staff, these are notes we distribute internally, and it is a process that we have seen God use to bring men to new places of wholeness and healing.

Specifically, our pastoral counseling protocol revolves around three elements:  spirituality, therapy, and community.


When a man comes to my office seeking help with his addiction to pornography, that first meeting always includes healing prayer.

While the addiction may have begun as moral failure, it most cases it has escalated to the point of uncontrollable behavior.  He no longer looks at porn because he wants to but because he is overcome with a compulsion that makes him feel he has to.

I always affirm the man’s courage in coming to me, assure him that I am not going to place another layer of guilt on him (he usually feels enough of that already), and let him know that his current impasse is, at the core, a spiritual issue.  He has substituted a false god for the true one – after all, it’s not accidental that so many excavated idols are sexualized figurines.  Internet porn is simply a modern manifestation of an ancient idolatry.

With that awareness, I will often anoint my friend with oil, lay hands on his shoulders, and pray Jesus’ healing power over his addiction.  At some point in that spoken prayer, I will have the man pray out loud for himself.  I believe it is vital for the man to own his addiction before God and to claim the healing that is available in Christ.  Whether it’s porn or alcohol or gambling or gluttony, I contend that God won’t do for you what he needs to do with you.


Sadly, all too many pastors, church, and addicts would regard the meeting described above as the end of the matter.  As in, “it’s been prayed for, I’ve been delivered, so that’s it.”

My friends in the world of Recovery call that a “spiritual bypass.”  Meaning: many addicts long for a one-stop, one-step prayer miracle – a ZAP! – that heals them without going through the difficult work of recovery.

And while deliverance from porn addiction may on occasion happen in that fashion, it is much more common for healing to occur in and through the type of community one finds in a Twelve Step Program.  So in the counseling session I’ve been describing, I will connect the struggling man with either a Sex Addicts Anonymous or a Sexaholics Anonymous group meeting in our area.

To make that connection more personal, I typically contact one of several men I know in our church who are in SAA or SA and ask them to ensure that the new person makes it to his first meeting.  Those in recovery have proven remarkably eager to help others begin working the steps.

Once in a recovery group, an addict discovers that a) he is not alone; b) he needs to be restored to sanity; and c) healing emerges from shared struggle much better than from isolated toil.  I enjoy watching church friendships flourish that I know began at SAA meetings.


The recovery community calls sexual addiction “cunning, baffling, and dangerous.”  And so it is.

So the battle against it requires the heavy artillery of individual therapy.  We are fortunate in the Charlotte area to have a number of the nation’s leading therapeutic experts in the area of sex addiction, and so Good Shepherd keeps a ready list of referrals.

There are many, many forces at work that drive a man to sexual and pornographic addiction, and it generally takes the skill of an experienced therapist to uncover root causes and to craft coping strategies.

In cases of financial hardship, we underwrite up to five sessions of therapy.

We firmly believe that all three elements – spirituality, community, therapy – are indispensable.

I have met men who were either too private to join a community or too proud to enter therapy, and the results was a partial attempt at recovery.  And, as the Twelve Steppers remind us, “half measure availed us nothing.”

Pastoral Follow Up

I do my best to maintain contact with the guys who have trusted me with their stories and their struggles.  So, via text message, email, or phone call, I will periodically check-in with those under my pastoral care.  How you holding up?  How much sobriety do you have?  Are you making your meetings?

Without fail, the men appreciate being remembered and known.

And then when I get an email like the one below from the same guy who I mentioned in the opening of this article, it’s all worth it:

Dear Talbot,

I just want you to know how much this journey of healing has meant to me.  I feel free for the first time in my life.  Thank you for getting me in that group, thanks for (my therapist), and thanks for the prayers.