Day 20: FORGIVEN

Luke 5:20

Friend, your sins are forgiven.

One of my favorite quotes on forgiveness comes from the political philosopher, Hannah Arendt.  In her book, The Human Condition, she writes, 

Forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven. The freedom contained in Jesus’ teachings of forgiveness is the freedom from vengeance, which incloses both doer and sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process, which by itself need never come to an end.

In the story from Luke 5, Jesus is pronounces forgiveness on a man who, being physically incapacitated, has been literally lowered into the presence of Jesus.  The man’s friends, desperate to bring their paralyzed friend to the attention of the miracle worker, closed out by crowds, take to the roof.  They make a hole in the ceiling to get their audience with Jesus.  Talk about unexpected.

The man himself says nothing.  His friends say it all.  The text says that Jesus pronounced forgiveness upon the man because he, “saw their faith.”  I’m not sure the friends were looking for their friend to be forgiven.  However, in the end, the paralyzed man stood on his own and danced out of the house a free man.

There is so much in this story that reminds us, we cannot forgive alone.  To act anew and unexpectedly, we depend upon the exceptional faithfulness of friends…who prepare us to trust the truth that sets us free, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”  

Prayer:  Gracious God, I give thanks for friends, for the Friend, without whom I would not know the truth that I am forgiven.  Amen.

Day 19: POOR

Luke 4:18

He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

According to Bloomberg News (Feb. 13, 2019), I live in the 10th wealthiest community in America.  Glencoe is the only North Shore community to make it into the top ten…Winnetka comes in at #13.  We moved up from the #15 spot we occupied in 2018.  Our average household income is pegged at $339,883.  

I think it’s fair to say that on any given Sunday, I am not bringing good news to the poor.

Of course, there is a poverty that is intrinsic to the human condition.  That reality, however, is harder to own up to when we live in conditions of such material abundance.  I talked with someone in our congregation a few months ago who shared with me that their household income was around $375,000/year.  This person—who works hard (as does his spouse), lives modestly, and gives generously—also shared that he lives with a feeling of financial insecurity.  

Does good news for the poor mean bad news for the rich?  If so, I am failing miserably. Jesus did talk about how difficult it was for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  He gave us the image of a camel squeezing through the eye of a needle.  Not a pretty picture.

Well, here we are.  Following in the way of Jesus is unsettling.  How do we live in such a way that our way of life is good news for the poor?  How do we live in such a way that we remain attuned to our own poverty even as we dwell in conditions of material abundance?  

Paul Farmer, a physician who has done amazing work among the poor in Haiti and other places across the world, once said: “God gives but doesn’t share.  God gives humans everything we need to flourish, but he’s not the one who is supposed to divvy up the loot.  That charge was laid upon us.”  That’s good news, even for camels.

Prayer: Gracious God, I want my life to be good news for the poor.  Amen.

Day 18: LISTEN

James 1:19

Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.

This past Sunday afternoon, Jennifer and I made a decision: to stop listening to the news.  “Breaking News” has become little more than “Breaking Speculation.”  There is a limit when the “news” is reporting on what has happened, alerting us to what is literally ‘new’ in the world.  However, there is no limit to what counts as “news” when it is reporting on what might happen, on what is yet to be.  We will continue to listen for the news through much quieter, slower, less intrusive media—newspapers, journals and conversation, for example.  Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that, when it comes to the news, we are determined to become more disciplined in how we listen.

One of the reasons there is so much talk these days about the importance of silence is that there is so much noise in our everyday lives.  It’s worth imagining what it was like when the only sounds one heard in everyday life were sounds made in one’s immediate physical surroundings by oneself or others, by nature, or by another creature.  I think it’s fair to say that listening has become much more difficult when we hear so much.

In the pre-dawn hours of this past Sunday morning, I walked outside to pick up the paper on our front sidewalk.  Instead of taking the shortcut through the garage (always a temptation in winter) when the melodious sound of our garage opening fills the air, I took the longer, quieter pathway.  I went out the kitchen door, followed the path through the backyard and around the side of the house.  As I stepped out and quietly closed the kitchen door behind me, I was immediately enveloped by the sound of birds of all kinds singing the breaking of day, heralding the news that Spring has indeed come.  

If we are to be quick to listen these days, we must slow the cacophony of technologically mediated sound (speaking) that floods our days so that we might become capable of listening for what is being spoken to us.  Of course, the reduction of such noise will surely make us less irritable, less prone to anger…and anxiety.  

PrayerGracious God, today, wherever and whenever I can, I will be quick to dial down the noise in order to listen more closely.  Amen.

Day 17: TREASURE

Matthew 6:21

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

A good friend wrote me this past Saturday to tell me that in the very early hours of that very morning, the wife of his grandson was awakened to discover that their home was on fire.  Finding themselves trapped, they both somehow managed to get from their 3rd floor bedroom to a basement window.  The husband, choking with smoke, pushed his wife out first.  She then managed to pull him to safety just in time to keep him from being overtaken by the smoke.  They both came out alive—holding, along with each other, one of their cats.  Their other cat, along with their dog and everything else was lost. He sent me a picture:  it is devastating. Literally everything went up in flames. 

I have never experienced such a traumatic loss of all things.  Not even close.  I have never had the experience of being so suddenly stripped of so much. My guess is, the hearts of this young husband and his wife were both full and broken all at the same time.  As they held one another and watched everything they owned, and so much of what they loved, turned to ashes before their eyes, their life must have seemed more precarious and more precious than at any other moment in their lives.  

We must never diminish the value of making a home, creating a life furnished with things of all kinds that we treasure.  We are by nature and design treasuring creatures. We are made for attachment.  That being said, we must confess that our hierarchy of attachment is prone to become distorted, corrupted, and degraded. In denial of the fragility of our lives, we over-attach to things that have the appearance of solidity and permanence.

I have absolutely no wish for the house of my life to be burned to the ground.  That being said, Lent—the season that begins with ashes—is a good time to ask the question: when the dust settles, where does my heart dwell?

Prayer:  Gracious God, expose the dwelling of my heart.  Amen.

Day 16: WORLD

John 3:16

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.

The Greek word for “world” is “cosmos.”  The view of the “world” in the mind of the writer of the Gospel of John in the latter years of the 1st Century was (essentially) infinitesimally small compared to the view of the “cosmos” that we, situated in the early 21st Century, now possess. 

To say, “God” so loved the “world” then and now is to confront how our understanding of “God” must be ever-expanding no less than is our understanding of the “cosmos.”  If we tie the meaning of this verse to a view of the universe rooted in the understanding of the 1st Century, God becomes a relic of a prescientific understanding. 

Then, as now, however, God is identified by a love that encompasses all things.

We don’t age out of our understanding “God” or the “world”…in the same way we don’t age out of our understanding of love.  Love by its very nature is expansive.  Christianity resides comfortably in an expanding and expansive understanding of God, of the world, and of love.

The Bible discloses a God who is bigger than all that is and yet small enough to be found in the midst of the world as we know it, in whatever historical time we dwell.

Then, as now, perhaps it is the way God gets small that is the hardest thing of all to grasp.  In all times, is the love of God that is the center of gravity for our understanding of “God” and “world.”

Prayer:  Gracious God, help me to see your love shining through in all that is beyond me and in all that is immediately before me.  Amen.

Day 15: PEACEMAKERS

Matthew 5:9

Blessed are the peacemakers.

As we move through our day today, it is reasonable to assume things will be “peaceful.”  If I was taking the train into Chicago, I would not hesitate to go without protection except from the weather. I would not be wary or anxious as I walked down Park Avenue, boarded the train loaded with strangers.  Nor would I be nervous when I stepped off the train in Ogilvie Station and joined the throngs of people making their way.  Chances are, I would have no thought of threat, conflict, or violence.   

The norm of peace is a remarkable achievement and yet if you had not read this today, you (like me) would take the peaceful state of our everyday existence for granted.

That being said, peace is not a given.  Take a moment as you make your way today to marvel at the norm of peace.  It is not so everywhere for everyone.  However, where it is so, it is a marvelous thing to behold.

War breaks out, conflict irrupts, anger explodes….peace does none of those things.   Peace must be made.  We are called upon by Jesus to be makers of peace.  The word, “peacemaker” appears only here in the entire Bible.  

Where in your life does peace need to be made?  Let that question linger…and where there is something—one thing—that can you can do to make peace, whatever it might be, commit to doing so.  A note, a call, an invitation, or even something as immediate and intimate as a prayer. 

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

PrayerGracious God, help me to make a move for peace today.  Amen.

Day 14: TIME

Mark 1:15

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”

One thing we become aware of with time, is that our experience of it varies.  It speeds up, it slows down, it stands still, it escapes us.  There is clock time that remains constant.  Whatever variation there is in clock time is so infinitesimally small, we are oblivious to it.  Although, we just went through a “time change” a few weeks ago, and the relative shock of that adjustment provokes our awareness of just how ordered our lives are by clock time.

There are times in our lives when everything comes together.  It feels full.  Not in the sense of being scheduled to the hilt—but in the sense of culmination.  It can be a moment in time—an experience of a dinner with friends, a concert, or a sunset.  A sense of the fullness of time can extend over a period of years when you feel as if everything is finally in sync. You are no longer longing for a past that once was or a future that is yet to be.  The meaning of your life feels self evident.  In those times the past, present, and future feel no longer conflicted.  There is a sense of resonance.

In Greek, in the New Testament, there is “chronos” time and “kairos” time.  The former is clock time.  The latter has more to do with the fullness of time.  The coming of Jesus is talked about as kairos time, as the fulfillment of time.  That fullness speaks of a possibility then and now.  The transcendent is known in the fullness of time, not in our escape from it. 

When are you engaged with something that gives you a taste, a glimpse of the fullness of time?  Often when we watch TV or surf the internet and lose a sense to time…and we come away feeling like time has been lost.  But when in a moment, in a day, perhaps even in a more extended time over months or years have you experienced the fullness of time?  

PrayerGracious God, help me to measure my days less by the clock and more by a sense of your nearness in time.  Amen.

Day 13: WATER

John 4:13-14

Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.

My parents were motorcycle people.  Well, at least my father was and my mother went along for the ride.  One summer, they took a trip from Kansas to California on my father’s Honda Goldwing.  Their route took them through the desert.  Given the exposure, that’s a little risky on a motorcycle.  Especially risky because my father has a terrible sense of direction…it was long before GPS.  

Long story short, they found themselves lost.  Gas was running low, the temperature was running high with no civilization in sight.  They donned their rain gear to protect themselves from the sun.  Panic began to set in as my father raced frantically in whatever direction he was headed in the hope that it would get them out of nowhere fast.  My mother began to wilt.  Literally.  She fell silent as he felt her body leaning heavily against his.  She was losing consciousness.  With one hand on the throttle, his other strained to keep her from falling.

Finally they came across an oasis of sorts…a hotel in the wilderness.  Screeching to a halt, my father took my mother in his arms and stumbled towards the pool.  When he got to the pool’s edge, he simply fell in with her.  As they floated together, her body absorbed the life-giving water into every pore of her being.  She revived. They rode on to tell the story of how water saved them.

In the world all of us reading this post inhabit, thirst is rarely experienced except as a minor inconvenience and is easily quenched.  So easily, we lose our appreciation for the life sustaining, life-saving power of water.  

Our souls thirst for living water, Jesus said.  In a culture with so many thirst-quenching substitutes available, our souls can wither.  Sometimes, the best we can do is stumble in one another’s arms to the water’s edge, fall in and be saved.

PrayerGracious God, let the simple, plain taste of water today remind me of the thirsting of my soul that longs for living water.  I come with cup in hand.  Amen.

Day 12: BREAD

Matthew 6:11

Give us this day our daily bread.

The provision of daily bread is equivalent to having what is necessary for the sustenance of life—one day at a time.  There is always the danger that we partake of more than what is necessary for the day, or that we hoard it out of fear and a lack of trust that we will not have what we need for tomorrow (regardless of how our hoarding might make daily bread unavailable to others).

In the Jewish and Christian traditions, bread becomes recognized as a symbol of God’s provision for what we need, and so we give thanks.  The breaking and sharing of bread becomes an enactment of communion and fellowship.  It is a recognition of our common dependency and of our shared vulnerability.  In the act of breaking and sharing bread, the very realities of our human condition become a source of communion and peace rather than the cause for anxiety and conflict. (What if every session of Congress opened with the simple act of breaking and sharing bread?)

“Can we share a table?”  The voice came from behind me yesterday as I stood waiting for a table at the only sit-down restaurant available at the Palm Springs airport.  My impulse was to say no.  I don’t like making conversation with strangers.  But I know when not to follow my less noble impulses. “Sure, of course.”  Before long, we were seated and I was learning that my newfound companion was returning to Chicago after a month of recovery at the Betty Ford Center.  We broke bread together.  He felt it was providential that his first meal back in the real world was with a minister.  For him it was a sign of God’s provision.  I felt it too.

When our common vulnerability and dependency is shared, we become companions on a sacred journey rather than anxious wanderers in a wilderness of scarcity.

Prayer:  Gracious God, help me to recognize my daily needs as a source of thanksgiving and fellowship—the reality that joins me day by day to you and to my neighbor.  Amen.

Day 11: ABBA

Romans 8: 15-16

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have 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.

“Abba” is an Aramaic term of endearment for “father” that appears only in the New Testament and, there, only in three places…and always alongside the Greek word for “father.”  It is how Jesus, whose childhood language was probably Aramaic, addressed God when he prayed.  (And all this time you thought it was just the name of a Swedish rock band from the 70’s :) It is thought by scholars that the pairing of these two words for “father” was intended to hold together both the unique intimacy and the formal reverence associated with fathers and their children, and by implication, indicative of the relationship we have with God.

I just finished a book on fathers and sons, If You Build It…, by Dwier Brown.  Brown played the young John Kinsella in the movie Field of Dreams.  He only appears in the last 5 minutes.  If you have seen the movie, you know those five minutes.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth it for those last 5 minutes. John Kinsella walks from beyond the grave onto a baseball field in the middle of Iowa that his son, Ray, has unknowingly built for him.  It’s a long story as all stories of sons and their fathers are.  It was not uncommon when the movie ended and the lights came up to have a theatre full of fathers and sons too emotional to move from their seats.  I remember that happening to me.  The movie touched something deep.

In the book, Dwier Brown tells the story of his complicated relationship with his own father along with some of the many encounters he has had with strangers over the years who stoped him on the street when they recognized him from the movie.  Unbidden, they would proceed to recount heart-wrenching stories of how the movie changed their lives—redeeming their own relationships with their fathers or, as fathers, with their sons.  

If we can manage to peal away all the manifold layers of patriarchal and sexist implications, oppression, suppression that have played out over the centuries of church history when the naming of God as “father” justified identifying God as male (and, by implication, male as God)—and I don’t for a second minimize the significance and necessity of that task—I think we can perceive a redemptive nerve being touched.

In its original intent, the language makes a direct connection between the relationship of a child to a parent and the relationship we have to God.  A relationship we do not create, an identity that does not disappear with age or maturity—neither does it remain unchanged.  Naming and knowing God as “Abba, Father,” does not rest on the assumption of the goodness of the parent/child relationship as much as its reality. It sets our relationship with God in the context the primal, unique, intimate relationship of a parent to a child no less than it sets those relationships in a context that makes possible the healing and redemption of those relationships..

It’s complicated.  The bond between parent and child is uniquely profound in all our lives…in time, we all come to realize its profundity in our lives, a realization inevitably amplified if we become parents.  I often wonder if all the bonds of love we forge in this life are formed out of the love we first learned as children or, conversely, if all our bonds of love come from a longing to heal from the brokenness born in us from those relationships.  Perhaps, for all of us, it is a mixture of both.  

As significant as our relationships as sons and daughters are with our mothers and fathers, they are not more significant than our relationship with God.  And that is good news for mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters. 

Prayer: Gracious God, may the love I have known from my childhood become a sign of your love for me.  May any failure of love I have known from my childhood be healed and redeemed by the knowledge that I am your child.  Amen.

Day 10: WORDS

Ephesians 4.29:

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 

“Words matter!”  

That was the phrase I blurted out on my first and only encounter with (then soon to be) President Obama.  I was perched on a table standing towards the rear and above the crowd in the overflow room in a school in Laconia, New Hampshire.  It was the night after a debate with his Primary opponent, Hillary Clinton.  She had accused him of being really good with words—which, she said in so many words, didn’t count for much because “words are easy.”  As I watched it on television, it occurred to me that his comeback should have been simply: “Words Matter!” 

With President Obama standing within earshot, I couldn’t resist—I even surprised myself (and embarrassed my family members who were with me). I shouted out my two words of advice…perhaps with a few hand gestures for added emphasis.  He stopped shaking hands with the front row.  He looked up to where I was perched, raised his hand, pointed his finger right at me, and shouted back, jabbing the air for emphasis, “That’s right!  Words Matter!”

I like to think that from that moment on, we have had a special bond.  🤓

Words are the lifeblood of connection and communication.  One thing is for certain today: you will use words.  Even if you are not speaking (like right now), these written words are mediating something of me to you.  I’m inside your head.  Amazing.  

Our words will make a difference today.  They will add to the repertoire of reference all those who hear them will have of us.  Our words are binding.  We are bound to others by our words.  It’s how we speak ourselves into the world and the world of one another.  They are creative. They matter in ways we do not grasp.

God has created a world in which words matter.  Genesis tells us that it was with words that God created the world.  “And God SAID, ‘Let here be light, and there was light.”  On an infinitesimally smaller scale, we too create worlds.  Words Matter.

Prayer: Gracious God, today, may my words be instruments of your creative grace in and for all those who hear them.   Amen.

Day 9: ASK

Matthew 7:7

“Ask and it will be given you.”

Of whom do you ask things?  Who asks things of you?  

The people you name in answer to those two questions will go a long way to identifying your most significant relationships.  I don’t have in mind those people we ask to fill a practical need and to whom we pay for the service they provide in response.  Those transactions are common to everyday life.  

The kind of asking that Jesus has in view is not in the form of demand or giving instruction.  It is the kind that arises from genuine, personal need.  It is the kind that has in it a meaningful mix of vulnerability and trust.

That kind of asking is deeply personal and self-revealing.  It is no less revealing of how we are in relationship to certain others around us.  When we, for whatever reason, no longer feel we have the freedom to ask, it is a sure sign that we have become isolated—our relationships have become attenuated, thin, and distant.

When Jesus declares, “Ask and it shall be given you,” he is speaking of a fundamental freedom we have in relation to God.  It is a precious freedom.  Obviously, this is not some guarantee of wish fulfillment.  It is the promise of being heard, understood, and received.  It is an act that names a kind of relationship with God that is far more personal than his hearers would have otherwise imagined…then and now.  It is an invitation. It is a gift.

Prayer:  Gracious God, I am hesitant to ask, but there is something……….     Amen.

Day 8: SEE

John 9: 25

“Though I was blind, now I see.”

It is interesting to think of how we talk of “seeing” something.  Often we are not talking about a visual sighting but of a certain kind of understanding, of in-sight.

I see what you’re saying.  I just don’t see it that way.  Sometimes it’s a bit of both:  How could I not see that?

It feels like we are living in a time when so many of us are looking at the same thing and seeing different things.  A few months ago, during a visit with my sister who lives in Wichita, Kansas, a rather extended and frightfully intense conversation ensued.   I did my level best to help her see what she was so obviously blind to in relation to a certain political leader in our country.  She was no less impassioned in her efforts to open my eyes.   We both came away more convinced of how clearly we saw the other’s blindness.

Scientists tell us we all have blind spots.  That is a given.  There is a spot on the optic disc of our retinas where the optic nerve passes through that lacks light detecting photoreceptor cells.  Here’s what’s even more interesting:  our brains fill in the details for us!  That’s why we don’t see it.  It takes the surrounding detail and information from the other eye to fill in the gap.  Our brains mind the gap for us!  (That explains why, as you see often in these posts, I am such a poor proof reader—I am really good at self- correcting :)

All of which is to say: seeing is less a given than an achievement.

At the very least, we need to stay alert to the fact that we are always filling in the gaps—which leaves a lot of room for creativity…or distortion as the case may be.  In my conversation with my sister, as I look back on it, I lost sight of her.  

From the earliest days, Christians equated the gift of salvation, of redemption, with the ability to see.  They saw that seeing is much less an achievement than a gift.  They called it grace.

Prayer:  Gracious God, help me to see what I have been missing as I pass through this day.  Amen.

Day 7: LIGHT

John 8:12

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

It is interesting how primal the metaphor of light is for God.  Whenever anyone describes an encounter with God, more often than not, they will describe an encounter with light.  

Back in the mid 1990’s, I had a close friend—the Dean of Bates College—who, believe it or not,  endured a double-heart transplant.  The first transplant failed hours after the operation.  He was put into a semi-comatose state while they waited in hope for a second heart.  A second heart became available and the second operation was a success. 

The backyard of his home bordered ours.  I remember seeing him walking through his vegetable garden a day or two after his return.  I wandered over to welcome him home.  There was a certain kind of radiance about him.  In the course of our conversation he told of an experience he had in the hours between his operations.  

As he lay there, semi-conscious, he remembers his wife sitting at the end of his bed.  He felt himself moving towards an indescribably brilliant and compelling light.   He felt drawn into the presence of the light, but he never lost sight of his wife in the room.  As compelling as the light was, it was not in any way threatening—he felt absolutely free to choose not to follow its lead.  He remembered saying something to the effect of, “Not yet.  I’m not ready to go yet.”  And then he was back in his room, in his bed, in his ailing body, with his wife and thoroughly at peace.  There was no question in his mind, he had encountered God.

In the midst of this extraordinary account, he said something in particular I will never forget:  “I don’t quite know how to say this, but it was a fierce and friendly light.”

Perhaps our whole lives are a movement towards that fierce and friendly light.  We are awakened by the light every morning.  And each night we enter the darkness in anticipation of the light of a new day.  To “never walk in darkness” is not the description of a life absent darkness, but a promise of a life that will never, finally, be absent the light of life.  

Prayer:  Gracious God, for the light of this world, I give you thanks.  Let me, this day, be a witness to the light of life.  Amen.

Day 6: LOVE

1 John 3:18

Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

Love as speech requires love in action or it becomes a lie.  There is always a danger that our words overstate our actions.  Love is perhaps best known when it is understated in my speech and overstated in my deeds.  That may be the best chance we have for congruence.

I feel that speaking of love is much too casual in this culture.  It rolls off our tongues too easily.  To talk too often of love mutes its expression.  I know that sounds counterintuitive and perhaps it reveals deep psychological scars from my childhood.  (The therapists among us can explore that with me at a later date. :)

When I reflect back on my earlier years of parenting, as I have been doing of late due to my reading of books on parenting, I cringe.  Not because I failed to speak of love, but because, too often, I failed in my acts of love.  Too often I failed to get out of my head, out of my self-preoccupation and embrace in love the life that was literally standing before me, looking to me, waiting for me, watching me, walking beside me.  Too often, I was less interested in seeing where they were looking, how they were seeing, what they were feeling, than I was in getting them to see what I saw, follow in the way that I needed them to go, to do what I needed them to do. 

Love’s vocabulary is deed.  It takes time…and a lot of it.  Life in its fullness unfolds only at the speed of love.  I am still recalibrating.

“The day will come when after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love.  And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, humanity will have discovered fire.”  - from, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “The Evolution of Chastity.”

At the heart of Christianity is love as deed.  The Word became flesh.  

Prayer: “Gracious God,  Help me to love in deeds this day—to hesitate in my speech and be bold in my actions. Amen.”

Day 5: STILL

Psalm 46:10

“Be still, and know that I am God!”

“Sit still.”  That was a command I remember hearing often in my childhood.  Perhaps we were in the car (all five kids in the family car that today would pass as a compact), at the dinner table, or more likely in a church service.  In adulthood, it strikes me less as a command and more as an invitation.

We speak often of how God is known in action, in doing.  But less often of the knowledge of God that comes from stillness.  These two ways of knowing are not disconnected.  One is not a substitute for the other. Without the knowledge that comes in stillness, our doing springs more from reaction than response.  Without the knowledge that comes in doing, our stillness sedates more than it awakens.

While we cover greater distances in less time than any society before our own, our bodies are more still than ever.  We have to take to tread mills and deliberate times for walking to keep our  bodies from atrophy.  Stillness for the sake of one’s soul in a world of constant motion requires no less deliberateness.

“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, 
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” -T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton (The Four Quartets)

Prayer: “Gracious God, today I will be still.  I need to recover my step.  Amen.”

Day 4: FAST

Matthew 6:17-18

“But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

For much of human history, the word “fast” meant ‘fixed, firm, steadfast, hold firmly.’  Its principal meaning today of “rapid, quick” doesn’t come into use until the 1550’s.  The meaning of the verbal form in the text from Matthew of “to abstain from food” is to be found in old english.  There may be a connection between “fasting” as a religious duty  and its older meaning “to make, firm, establish, confirm, pledge.”  

In our day, the most common usage of the word “fast” in relation to “food” perhaps says it all about how far we have traveled from its biblical meaning.  McDonalds is a long way from prayerful dedication of one’s person to God!  The first attested use of “fast food” is in 1951.  How far we have come…and fast!

The most common experience of “fasting” most of us have these days is 24 hours before a blood/urine test or (for those of us getting on in years) a colonoscopy!   (I’lll just let that speak for itself in terms of distance from spiritual meanings.)

To “fast” has long been a spiritual discipline associated with the season of Lent.  In a culture so addicted to speed and acceleration in all things, it is probably timely to recover its biblical meaning and purpose.

To abstain from food is to interrupt our consumption.  It is unnatural.  It requires the exercise of choice and effort in a counter direction.  It is a resistance to an impulse, a desire that our normal acquiescence has made largely unconscious.  “To fast” is to open up a space between stimulus and response.  In the context of a spiritual discipline, it is a sublimation of bodily impulse to a higher impulse—not intended to demonize physical desire, but to recover our awareness of it and its rightful place as a means and not an end. 

We do not live by bread alone.  

There can be great reward in abstaining.  It opens up an awareness, a consciousness, that has been lost to us.  When skating on thin ice, speed is essential.  

Prayer:  “Gracious God, where might an exercise of abstinence awaken?”

Note: Day 5 of Lent is Monday.

Day 3: CHOOSE

Deuteronomy 30:19-20

Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,

loving the LORD your God, obeying God, and holding fast to the Lord.

“Choose life.”  That imperative is worth pondering.  We live in a culture which turns on the assumption that life is not a given, it is a choice.  The less chosen one’s life is, the less authentic one’s life is.   The more options available, the higher the likelihood of a good life.

Parents feel the highest good they can give to their children is to create for them a life that will give them the widest array of options possible thus setting them up to live a fulfilled and meaningful life. 

Barry Schwartz (psychologist, Swarthmore College) writes, “The relation between choice and wellbeing is complicated. A life without significant choice would be unlivable. Being able to choose has enormous important positive effects on us. But only up to a point. As the number of choices we face increases, the psychological benefits we derive start to level off…and, with time, even accelerate.”  He concludes, “I think our society would be well served to rethink its worship of choice.” 

In all our choosing, life can be lost.

Lent is a time to choose life…to consider the question of how well my choices are aligned with my convictions of what matters most to my life…which may press upon us the deeper question of what convictions I have about what makes life worth living in the first place.

Prayer:  “Gracious God, as I move through this day, awaken my sense for life and strengthen my capacity to choose it.”

Day 2: RETURN

Joel 2:13

“Return to the Lord, your God, for God is gracious and merciful.”

In the narrative of Scripture, there are a lot of stories about leaving:  Adam and Eve leave the Garden, Abraham leaves his home, Joseph leaves his family, Jacob leaves his home, Ruth leaves her home, Israel leaves Egypt.  In the New Testament, leaving is a major theme as well—Joseph & Mary leave their homeland for Egypt, the disciples (one by one) leave their livelihoods and homes…Jesus leaves everything and everyone.  In my own life, leavings have been freighted with great meaning.  Life-changing.  

That being said, this morning’s word has set me wondering whether I have paid enough attention to the significance of return.  Perhaps it has to do with age.  Return has become no less, perhaps even more important to me than leaving.  

The Biblical narrative is with me on this.  Return stories abound:  Joseph returns to his family, Jacob returns to his brother, the people of Israel return to their land after exile—which is a major theme of the Prophets. The culminating promise of Jesus is that he will return.  Perhaps the most memorable story that Jesus tells is the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11ff) which is the story of the return home of the lost son to his father.  Return is central to the meaning of redemption.

There is something deep within us that longs for return.  That movement has many meanings:  reconciliation, recovery, reunion, reconnection, retrieval, renewal…even that biblical word, repentance. All such movements are all in some way experiences of return.  Returning, so understood, is not the same as going back.  It speaks more to our yearning for wholeness, completion, even healing.  

Where does the longing for return live in you?  Pay attention to that impulse.  Listen for it and to it.  What does it mean for you to answer that call?  

Prayer:  “Gracious God, help me to listen more carefully to the yearning for return that dwells in me.  Amen.”

Day 1: DUST

Genesis 3: 19

“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Whenever I read this text or speak it (as I will, repeatedly, at tonight’s Ash Wednesday Service), my impulse is to add, “Yes, but….”  We are more than that…we are spirits, bearers of the image of God, God has set eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11)…we are destined for Resurrection…etc….”  

“Yes, but!”  

This is the day, Ash Wednesday, when we are called upon to say simply, “Yes.” Today is the day we receive this word, in silence, and have it imprinted on our foreheads with ashes.

Dust.  We don’t cling to it.  It clings to us.  We are in a constant war with dust.  Invisibly, inevitably, it descends on us.

We have devised all kinds of chemicals, products, and machinery to aid us in our war against dust.  Each year 4 million tons of dust falls on our planet from outer space.  Perhaps our compulsion to fight back the dust is akin to our denial of mortality’s descent

Today we choose to let the dust settle.  Today we settle in to the gravity of our being. 

Genesis 2:7 “Then the Lord formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed life into his nostrils….the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

In God, dust does not get blown away.  It comes to life.  

Prayer:  “Gracious God, into your hands I commend my life and my death.  Amen.”