It’s no secret that one of my favorite spiritual practices is to integrate art and faith – including the art and imagery of photography. Lent, the reflective, somber season of preparation before Easter’s arrival, is a perfect time to pause and be thoughtful.
How is God at work in your daily life? Show us through a photo.
Beginning on Wednesday, you are invited to participate alongside me in a Lenten photo challenge:
How it works: Each day is assigned a different word. The words are intentionally open-ended, open to your interpretation. Take a photo that makes you think of the day’s word. You can explain it or not, that’s up to you. You can participate every day, or just when a particular word speaks to you. Just post the photo with the hashtag “NWUMCLent” on your social media of choice so we can find it and share it.
It is my hope and prayer that you will pause, reflect and grow a bit closer to God in the journey.
Bonus: The theme of our Lenten sermon series at New World UMC is “Giving Up.” (I preach on 3/8, 3/15 and 4/12 if you want to show up in real life!) Rev. Leslie Byrd and I will be creating daily devotionals to go with each photo challenge word. I’ll post them here too – so feel free to follow this blog for a daily Lenten devotional to bless your day!
As I scroll through my camera roll looking for images of endings, a sense of melancholy overwhelms me. There are so many endings – moving, graduations, seeing loved ones for final goodbyes. The harder ones are the recent unexpected endings: sports seasons cut unexpectedly short, church buildings full for the last time before quarantine, early ending to a school year.
“There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven.
A time to give birth and a time to die; A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted. A time to kill and a time to heal; A time to tear down and a time to build up. A time to weep and a time to laugh; A time to mourn and a time to dance. A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones; A time to embrace and a time to shun embracing. A time to search and a time to give up as lost; A time to keep and a time to throw away. A time to tear apart and a time to sew together; A time to be silent and a time to speak. A time to love and a time to hate; A time for war and a time for peace.”
We can take heart in knowing that every ending can also mark the beginning of something new. The picture with this message is from the Ulster Project Tearfest. In Ulster Project, American teens host Northern Irish teens for a month full of activity. The teens form deep, lifelong friendships and learn to love one another like family, which makes the inevitable saying “goodbye” a tear-filled event for everyone. While we are sad about saying goodbye to things and people we love, we can take heart in knowing something new will come…and we can be grateful for having had the opportunity to love so deeply.
As resurrection people, we know that the worst things are never the final things. And as in resurrection, we know that, although goodbyes can be hard, we have a promise of new and beautiful things to come.
As we close our Lenten photo challenge devotional series, I bring you a Seneca quote made famous in the 1990’s song “Closing Time”:
Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.
In the book of Hebrews, there is a reference to something called a “cloud of witnesses.” In chapter 12, it says “So then, with endurance, let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us.” What does that phrase mean to you? A cloud of witnesses is not something we might talk about often, but it is the reason that we are here together.
From the very beginning, people of faith have been sharing their stories with one another. As generation passes on the story to next generation, the lineage of our faith continues. Because people of faith shared the songs, stories, scriptures, and theological ideas with their family, friends and neighbors, we know the same stories today. We have our faith heritage today because people before us passed it to us.
We are each indebted to a heavenly throng of people who endured their own journeys of faith. Personally, I’m grateful for the women and men of faith who made it possible for me to be a clergyperson today. As we, the Body of Christ, endure our current circumstances, may we be encouraged to run our race with faithfulness.
Scripture Reading: “ so then, with endurance, let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfector. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God‘s throne. Think about the one who endured such opposition from sinners so that you won’t be discouraged and you won’t give up.” -Hebrews 12:1-3 CEB
Prayer: Holy God, thank you for the people of faith who came before us (our cloud of witnesses) and shared their stories. May we be encouraged to share our faith with one another. For Your glory we pray, Amen.￼
Reflection Questions: Who is it in your life that has shared faith with you? How did you learn what you know about God? Who can you share your story with?
Life in the dark shadows can seem frightening, yet God is faithful to be with us even through life’s shadows. As we walk through the valley of the shadow of death in Psalm 23, we take comfort that God’s rod and staff are with us. In the shadow of God’s wings, we are protected from destruction.
Shadows are also necessary in full beauty. In art and music, the best masterpieces include both light and shadow. In life, we must endure the hard times so that we may full appreciate the joyful. The greatest shadows are often found cast by the greatest goodness. As we move into the shadow of the crucifixion this week, we can rely on the promise that the light of resurrection will shine on the other side.
Reflection Questions: What are the shadows you are feeling in your life right now? When has life seemed its darkest? Where do you find promise of light and God’s protection?
Prayer: Holy God, we thank you for your promise to protect us and guide us when life seems dark and uncertain. Lead us to be lights for others who may be stumbling in the dark. We love you. Amen.
“All glory, laud and honor, To Thee, Redeemer, King, To Whom the lips of children Made sweet hosannas ring.”
Refrain from “All Glory Laud and Honor,” hymn written in the year 821
Today is Palm Sunday, the day we remember Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. While today’s worship experience looks different than last year’s, we still join today the communion of saints before us who remember the story of a crowd shouting “Hosanna” while waving palms and placing their coats on the ground ahead of him. It’s astounding to consider that the words above were written about 1200 years ago. They are based on this scripture:
“When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave two disciples a task. He said to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that their master needs them.” He sent them off right away. Now this happened to fulfill what the prophet said, Say to Daughter Zion, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring.” The disciples went and did just as Jesus had ordered them. They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them.
Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!Hosanna in the highest!” And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked. The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Matthew 21:1-11 CEB via BibleGateway
On this particular Palm Sunday, our joy-filled processions of children and church members waving palm branches looked different. The picture is a screen shot of a few of our palm waving children today – a beautifully creative way to bring us together in worship. Palm Sunday looks different, but it is not canceled. Out of tremendous love for one another, we are sheltering in our separate places as we still celebrate in unity. We still join the procession of Christians who came before us as we celebrate.
This Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, so we can also remember that this triumphant entry and celebration will be followed by angry crowds calling out for the crucifixion of this same Jesus of Nazareth. This is a week when we remember the Last Supper, the darkness of crucifixion, and finally the joy of resurrection.
As we move into this Holy Week, my prayer is that you discover God anew. May you remember the faith stories deeply and without the distractions of over-commercialization. While this together-yet-separate experience is new territory for us, may you find ways to wave your own palms in celebration.
Hosanna in the Highest!
Prayer: Holy Triune God, we remember your triumphant entry into Jerusalem and we long to join the crowds shouting “Hosanna.” We celebrate that you are a good God who is always with us. Be with us this week as we find new ways to remember the joy and hope that is found in resurrection. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Reflection Questions: Where are you seeing goodness in others? What are you thankful for today?
“Whoever you are, you are human. Wherever you are, you live in the world, which is waiting for you to notice the holiness in it.”
-Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World
Where is your vision focused today?
It is tempting, in the midst of troubles and uncertainty, to gaze toward an unknown horizon, one we imagine to be full of misfortune, fear and worry. We may wonder today, “where is God in all of this?” We may lament that it feels like there is no hope, it feels so overwhelming. If we have learned nothing else in this time of pandemic and so many canceled plans, we cannot control the future as much as we wish we could.
After enduring many trials and tragedies, a man named Job in the Bible faced many temptations to reject God. He remained steady in his faith. In Job 27, he exclaims “as long as breath is in me and God’s breath is in my nostrils – my lips will utter no wickedness.”
And so, dear friends, I ask you to draw your vision to the here and now, to this present moment. Be here now.
In this present moment, God is with you. God’s breath is in your nostrils. In this present moment we have our breath, an opportunity to breathe deeply and be still.
God is still good. God is still the God of hope. I urge you not to get caught up in the temptation to fall into fear and worry. While we cannot control our future, in this very moment we can sit in stillness and be thankful.
Consider these words from Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
“Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks.Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.
From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.”
Philippians 4:4-8 CEB
Cast your eyes on Christ in this moment, and be thankful. May the God of peace be with you.
Prayer: Holy God, thank you for the breath in our lungs today. Thank you for the gift of this new day. We embrace your presence in this moment and trust you to care for us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
Did you know that there are expert consultants in sand castle building?
In 2011, I took a youth group to the beach and we hired a sand castle expert teach us how to make elaborate sand castles. His team brought buckets, shovels and special carving tools. We learned special techniques to make elaborate spires and the like. Naturally, we broke into small groups and had a friendly competition on which group could make the best castle.
Our creations were gone before the end of the day. Most sand castles are not quite as elaborate, but the act of making something and molding the wet sand is like no other. No matter if you spend hours working on an elaborate sand fortress, or you are just trying to build something as quickly as possible before your toddler smashes it, eventually sand castles are meant to fall.
You shouldn’t get emotionally attached to a sand castle. We definitely couldn’t live in one.
As the scripture reminds us, we don’t even want to build our foundation on the shifting sand. In the same way, there are many things in our life that are not permanent after all. But God remains faithful and our faith is a solid foundation. More than ever, we can remember to build our foundation on the Solid Rock that is found in God alone. As we face struggles of any kind, we can rely on the foundation of our faith to keep us strong.
May you find joy in this April Fool’s Day as you walk in wisdom.
Prayer: God, thank you for being our firm foundation. Every new day we remember that we can count on you. May we find joy in this day you have made. Amen.
Scriptures: Matthew 7:24-27, 22:23-33 and 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Reflection Questions: In what way is your faith helping you today? Where can you find support and peace today?
Listen to my prayer, Lord! Because of your faithfulness, hear my requests for mercy! Because of your righteousness, answer me! Please don’t bring your servant to judgment, because no living thing is righteous before you. The enemy is chasing me, crushing my life in the dirt, forcing me to live in the dark like those who’ve been dead forever. My spirit is weak inside me— inside, my mind is numb. I remember the days long past; I meditate on all your deeds; I contemplate your handiwork
I stretch out my hands to you; my whole being is like dry dirt, thirsting for you. Selah Answer me, Lord—and quickly! My breath is fading. Don’t hide your face from me or I’ll be like those going down to the pit! Tell me all about your faithful love come morning time, because I trust you. Show me the way I should go, because I offer my life up to you. Deliver me from my enemies, Lord! I seek protection from you. Teach me to do what pleases you, because you are my God. Guide me by your good spirit into good land. Make me live again, Lord, for your name’s sake.” Bring me out of distress because of your righteousness. Wipe out my enemies because of your faithful love. Destroy everyone who attacks me, because I am your servant.
Psalm 143 CEB (via Biblegateway)
Who is your guide?
Last May, I joined eleven other people of faith for the Missional Wisdom Foundation’s pilgrimage to the tiny Isle of Iona, Scotland. We traced the steps of many others who have made the journey to Iona and its famous abbey for hundreds of years. The purpose of our pilgrimage was to pull away for a time of retreat in one of the world’s “thin places,” a place on earth where the veil between heaven and earth seems thin. It truly is a breathtaking, sacred place – a place to experience God’s presence.
It would be nearly impossible to arrive on the tiny island of Iona by accident. Christian pilgrims have been making the journey for hundreds of years. From the United States, it involves taking flights to London and Glasgow, followed by a 4 hour train ride to the north of Scotland, a 1 hour ferry boat trip, 1 hour bus trip, and finally another 45 minute ferry ride. We then walked a half mile trek to the hostel for our week of community living.
This journey was possible because we had experienced and knowledgeable guides leading the way. They patiently but directly made sure all of the pilgrims made it to the right stations along the way on time, knowing that a delay anywhere along the journey would have ripple effect on everyone. The journey was made possible because we had dependable guides every step of the way.
It occurs to me that we are collectively on an unchartered journey right now, one none of us saw coming. It doesn’t seem that we have the benefit of being guided by a physical human being who has experienced global pandemic before. The journey feels treacherous, scary, hard. It’s overwhelming if we try to look too far down the road, but we can all go just one step at a time.
And yet, what we can remember as we take each small step together, is that none of us are on this journey alone. You are not alone. As the Psalmist reminds us, God is full of faithful love for us each morning, ready to show us the way to go. While this journey is difficult, we can trust that God is by our side, directing us on the way to go. May we find protection with God on our side, and the peace that passes all understanding as we remember that God is with us.
Prayer: Shepherding God, we believe that you are will us, guiding us and protecting us. We count on your faithfulness and know you to be a God who loves and cares for your children. We pray for your healing throughout our world and we put our trust in you. Please wrap your arms of love around us. In Jesus’s name. Amen.
Questions for reflection: How has God directed your steps in life? Who is on this journey with you? Who can you reach out to today to remind them that they are not alone (and in the process remember that you are not alone either)?
I took today’s Lent picture yesterday when I was out for a walk with my husband. What a strange sight to see a nearly empty Northwest Highway. It was around 5:30PM, and most week nights that same intersection is packed with cars as people rush home from work, rush out to their evening activities, or line up in their cars for dinners delivered through drive-thru windows. Ordinarily, I would not have been in that spot at that time of day – and I certainly would not have thought to take a picture of the typical evening rush of traffic. According to my calendar, I had plans to be at a junior high track meet, most likely eating another last minute dinner of something like popcorn and a hot dog from a booster club’s concession stand.
In fact, my usual life is all too often defined by the word “hurry.” I rush to get kids out the door to school in the morning, hurry to get dressed up and ready for work, wade through speeding traffic, scramble to meet deadlines, quickly consume lunch, hustle to wrap things up at the office, hurry home fighting traffic again, grab a bite to eat, run out the door to catch the evening’s activities. And so the cycle repeats the next day.
But not this week.
This pandemic and its accompanying stay at home order has slowed my routines to a halt. It has slowed many of us – and painfully caused emergency rushes to others. I don’t know about you, but I am so ready to have things back to normal, so we can have this all behind us. I long for days of normalcy.
One of my favorite quotes is this:
“The trouble is I am in a hurry, but God isn’t.”
While I long for days of normalcy, long for these troubled times to be over, there are things we can learn while we wait.
Today’s scripture reading is from Revelation 21:3-6 CEB:
“I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will freely give water from the life-giving spring.”
The book of Revelation, considered apocalyptic literature, often confuses and scares people. We don’t want to think of end times, even if we as believers know that end times include the promise of all things made new and the reign of God, and the symbolism of the book can be overwhelming. However, the term “apocalypse,” often glamorized by Hollywood movies or end-times fictional novels, doesn’t really mean what we think it means. Actually, the word “apocalypse” is a Greek word that means “revealing” or “revelation.”
While I don’t think the times we are in are apocalyptic in the “world ending” sense, they are revealing some very important things. Through this global experience, much has been revealed about our human experience and values.
For me, I have been forced to come to terms with what I value the most. I have had more time for reflection and less time for hurry. Family time is cherished in a whole new way. When my family wants to do something together like an extended walk, we just keep walking together. This is not a time for hurry.
I long for normalcy, yes. But I also wonder what I might want to let go of in my normal life – it’s a good time to take stock of what matters the most. My deepest desire is not to return to rushing around for hurrying’s sake, but to return to connection with others and being immersed once again in community.
Dear friends, God will bring us through this and something beautiful will emerge. We can count on God’s promises. God is making something new. As resurrection people, we can always know that the worst thing is never the last thing.
For now, we wait.
Scripture readings: Revelation 21, Psalm 130
Prayer: God of all time, it is so hard to wait through something this difficult. We lift up all who are ill or who may become ill, we pray for healing. Heal us physically, Lord, and also heal us spiritually. We count on your promises. Remind us that you are always present no matter our circumstances. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Reflection Questions: What have you learned about yourself in these last few weeks? Where have you seen God at work? What have you learned about your values?
“I cry out to you from the depths, Lord— my Lord, listen to my voice! Let your ears pay close attention to my request for mercy! If you kept track of sins, Lord— my Lord, who would stand a chance? But forgiveness is with you— that’s why you are honored.
I hope, Lord. My whole being hopes, and I wait for God’s promise. My whole being waits for my Lord— more than the night watch waits for morning; yes, more than the night watch waits for morning!
Israel, wait for the Lord! Because faithful love is with the Lord; because great redemption is with our God! He is the one who will redeem Israel from all its sin.”
Psalm 130 Common English Bible, via Biblegateway
And so here we all are – just waiting together.
The words for this Lenten devotional series were selected weeks before these days of shelter-in-place orders. It was just a few weeks ago, but none of us imagined our circumstances today – collectively staying home and waiting for a coronavirus to run its course. Waiting for a vaccine or a waning of outbreak, waiting for the go-ahead to join together again. When the word was picked, I envisioned a devotional about the perils of waiting our turn in long lines…now I cannot wait to be back in large crowds, just waiting with other people around. What an unexpected place to be. What can we learn through our waiting?
Waiting is not new to God’s people.
Scripture is full of stories about when God’s people had to endure with patience as they waited for God’s next actions. Noah and his crew waited through 40 days and nights of rain, followed by about 10 months of more waiting in the ark. The Israelites wandered through a desert for 40 years on their way to a promised land. God’s people waited patiently under cruel leaders, God’s people endured hardships, plagues, persecution, wilderness. Jesus’ followers waited through dark days until resurrection. We wait now in the already-not-yet time, knowing Christ is with us, knowing we are accompanied by the Holy Spirit as we wait for God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven. And so we wait in good company.
We wait in hope because we know that God is faithful.
What all of these waiting stories have in common is God’s faithfulness throughout. God never leaves nor forsakes God’s people. God provides the manna for each day, faithfully sustains us. During this time of waiting, may we be people who rest in God’s faithfulness. May we be a witness to the hope that God continues to provide. May we wait things out so all of God’s children can rejoice together on the other side. To God be the glory.
Scriptures for today: Psalm 130, Romans 8:18-28, 12:12
Prayer: Patient and loving God, be with us as we sit in the in-between places of our lives, waiting for the next thing to happen. We are grateful that you never abandon us as we wait. Help us to see the good that is all around us as we wait for your reign on earth. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Reflection Questions: What is something you are waiting for with great anticipation? When have you struggled with waiting patiently? What can you learn from waiting?