Final Lent Devotional: Ending

Ulster Project Tearfest

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.

Lent Devotional: Cloud

Midday at New World UMC, Arlington

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?

Sunset at Iona Abbey, Scotland

Lent Devotional: Shadow

“This is good, and all good things cast shadows.”

-Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World

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.

Scriptures: Isaiah 49:1-17, Psalm 91

Lent Devotional: Palm

“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
Scene from New World UMC’s Palm Sunday 2020

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?

Lent Devotional: Vision

“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.

Scriptures: Philippians 4 and Psalm 31:7-16

Lent Devotional: Fool

Kids and Sand Castles

“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.”

Matthew 7:24-27

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?