Monday, March 31, 2014


Daring to get involved in the Practice of His Presence has by now taken many of us into uncharted waters.  It is one thing to pray each day, but it is another to commit ourselves to intentionally be in His presence for thirty minutes a day.  And now, we are at a point of adding an additional ten more minutes to that daily schedule.  Indeed, it is somewhere we are not accustomed to walking.  Certainly, one of the things we have learned is that old schedules no longer enable us to do this new thing.  The old schedule of a few minutes praying and reading worked for that process, but it fails us when we start getting into prolonged spiritual devotional time. 
As we come to this juncture in the Practice of His Presence we may be wondering if it feasible or realistic to go into more of a time commitment when we have struggled with where we are. I remember some years ago being involved over a two year period with a group of about 20 folks who covenanted together to get up at 5:00 AM on Sunday morning to pray for the church and its worship services. Most of us found it to be new praying ground.  I must confess there were some Sunday morning when I made it to my appointed place to pray and soon fell asleep.  When I woke up about all I could say was that I was in the right place trying to do the right thing.  I was being obedient to what I sensed God calling me to do.  My spirit was stronger than my body some Sundays.  Failure or success, it was a good place to be walking.
So, plod on.  Pray on.  Keep breaking the long period of time into smaller segments each filled with its own schedule.  Try entering into times of silence where listening is the goal.  When the mind wanders, call it back by repeating over and over a prayer sentence like, "O Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on me."  Use those repetitious words to bring your mind and heart back to the same place so that the silence comes with the quiet voice of God. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lent XXVI....The Fourth Sunday

The man born blind shows up this Sunday in the gospel lectionary.  He has no name, but every reader of the Bible has met him and knows his story.  It is a long story which reminds us that sometimes Jesus uses very earthly stuff to accomplish His work.  Who would have ever thought that spit, dirt, and water would be the tools Jesus would use to affect this man's healing?   Of course, there was another thing which was surely useful as well.  Had the man born blind not exercised the faith to do as Jesus told him to do, his story would have had a very different ending.  Desperate people do not tend to think about how foolish they might look.  They just act out of a desperate faith and such is always pleasing to God.

It is unfortunate that our faith is more measured and thought out than desperate.  Too much we follow our head instead of our heart.  When we sense God pushing us into something which might be life changing, we start thinking through all the possibilities as well as all the consequence of acting on what we are being told.  We are the ones who weigh the cost instead of walking forward into the risk. This man born blind had a life changing experience that day for two reasons.  Obviously, he was no longer blind.  And secondly, since he could see as did others, his days could no longer be spent waiting on others to tend to his needs.  He would now have to do for himself as he had never done.

The farther we go on this journey, the more we see how little we understand one of its most basic ingredients.  Faith is something which seems simple enough to understand; yet, seeking to live with it soon becomes an exercise is realizing how little we really know and how little is actually practices.  Faith always takes us to the place of no longer depending on what is reasonable, logical, and maybe even sane.  Instead it takes us to the place where practicing it becomes so risky that only God can truly be trusted with the life it creates.


Saturday, March 29, 2014

Lent XXV

While there may be many reasons for fasting, one of the chief reason for fasting is to heighten our awareness of God's presence in our life.  A fast will take us from seldom thinking about God in the course of a day to a place where we are thinking about Him more times than we can count.  Sounds like a good place to be!  How it happens is not a complicated thing.  When you and I decide that we are not going to be eating for a day, or two, or maybe more, it is for certain that we will find ourselves thinking about eating and food.   One of the interesting things we will discover is how many times a day something about food enters into our mind.  And every time it happens, there is the opportunity to remind ourselves that we are fasting to put ourselves in the presence of God.  The moment of remembering the reason for the fast becomes a moment for praying, or worship, or giving thanks.  It becomes a moment for experiencing the presence of God in the moment.
Practically speaking, we go to the refrigerator and without thinking, pull out a snack, only to have the Spirit remind us that today we are not eating as a way of knowing God's presence.  There may even be a moment of being so addicted to the habit of mindless eating that we have the food in our mouth before the reminder comes.  But, be assured that if we are asking for the help of the Holy Spirit in this spiritual discipline, it will come.  The day will become a day for most of us of thinking far more about God than we normally do because of the way we are so accustomed to putting something in our mouth so often.

What we do with mealtime during a fast may be a bit more difficult for those with a family since no one wants to miss the table gatherings with those we love.  Sitting there not eating may seem a bit strange unless some explanation has been offered ahead of time.  In some situations it may be appropriate to spend that time in prayer or Bible reading or in going out and helping someone in need.  There are no hard and fast rules about how to do it.  What works for one will not work for all.  The important thing is to follow the direction given by the Spirit Who can be trusted to be our Helper.

Friday, March 28, 2014


From time to time we will hear someone speak of needing to fast for a few days in order to lose some weight.  The correct word to use when losing weight is the goal is dieting.  Actually, dieting and fasting have very little in common.  Dieting is about the body.  Fasting is about the soul.  Dieting is measured by pounds being lost.  Fasting is measured by attentiveness to God.  Dieting is about the physical.  Fasting is about the spiritual.  Dieting is about how we appear to others.  Fasting is concerned with how we appear to our God who looks only at our inward being.
Fasting is not a word which is only relative to food.  We can fast and choose to do without food.  We could also fast and chose to do without television, or that carry around phone that not only tells us who is calling, but tells us how important we are.  We can fast and choose to leave work at work, or we can fast and give up things like negative and unkind words.  We can even fast and choose not to watch Sunday afternoon sports events. 
Of course, the whole point of it all has to do with our motive.  If weight loss is our goal, then forget about using fasting as a word that describes what we are doing.  And if calling attention to what we are doing is what drives us, then we have missed the mark again.  The thing about fasting is the way it spills over into the rest of our life.  It helps us realize how much we long for things we really can let go, but the one thing we really cannot live without which is our relationship with God we so easily let it go.  If we thought as much about God in the course of a day as we do the food we are doing without, how different our spiritual life would be.  Fasting causes us to see what is really consuming our time and our energy.  It helps us see what we have declared by lifestyle choices to be important.

Thursday, March 27, 2014


When we come to the spiritual discipline of fasting, slow is most likely the operative word for most of us.  It is true that the scripture tells us that Jesus went into the wilderness after His baptism and fasted forty days and forty nights (Mt. 4:2), but such might not be a realistic place for the novice in this discipline to begin.  As we know, denying our body food for an extended period of time is serious business.  Anyone who has health issues which would be aggravated by a lack of food should not fast, but consider other spiritual disciplines which would not jeopardize his or her health. 

If fasting is something that is feasible, not injurious to your health, and you want to find out what it is all about, then begin slow and small.  Obviously, forty days is not where to begin.  Most of us find that fasting for a single meal, or maybe two, is the place to begin.  Learn how your body reacts to not getting its usual amount of food.  Also, fasting a meal or two is a realistic start.  We are not setting ourselves up to fail, or to get so discouraged that we quit and miss out on the spiritual blessings of this discipline.  Build a small base and then gradually increase the amount of time involved in the fast.  Listen to your body along the way.  If there seems to be some reason for physical concern, it is better to stop than put yourself at risk.

Perhaps, some might see all this as being too cautious.  After all, is not life with Christ a matter of faith?  Can He not be trusted to care for us if we go too far?  What we need to remember is that we do not need to leave our head somewhere else when we seek to walk in a deeper way with Christ.  Common sense is something given to us with the expectation that it will be used.  While it may seem that all the expressed caution takes away from the Lenten invitation to fast, such is not the intent.  Fasting is a spiritual discipline which can bring to us a deepened sense of God's presence which is a blessing we all seek. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


One of the spiritual disciplines to which the Invitation to Observe a Holy Lent calls us is fasting.  It is also the one discipline we are least likely to practice.  Of course, Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 6:16-18) that we should not make a show out of our fasting.  Some in His day who practiced it religiously did so in order that everyone would see their fasting and think good thoughts about them. However, it is only important for God to see, but I have a strong suspicion that even God has trouble seeing any evidence that we practice this particular spiritual discipline.  When something is not done, it is impossible to see.
Doing without food is counter-culture.  Most of us would go even further and say that doing without food is counter-everything!  Eating is what we do.  We are active members of a consuming culture.  Being hungry is not a pre-requisite for eating.  We eat out of boredom.  We eat to be on schedule.  We eat to fill emotional emptiness.  We eat because some advertisement tells us to eat.  We probably spend more time eating, or thinking about eating than any other daily need.
So, choosing not to eat is like being naked.  Suddenly, we have nothing behind which can hide.  Suddenly, we run headlong into realizing that we are living to eat instead of eating to live.  Suddenly, we begin to see a life that is racing out of control.  Suddenly, we see ourselves  as one of those who hungers for much more than is needed while hungering very little for God.  And it is then that the words of Jesus begin to eat at our heart, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Lent XXI

When we first started praying, it was all about us.  After getting God's attention with something like, "Dear Lord," we commenced with our list of things we thought He needed to do and people we wanted Him to help.  Perhaps, we threw in a few words of thanks and a quick request that He forgive us for whatever sins we might have committed.  And with nothing more for which to pray, we raced on to the ending, "Amen."  But, that was then and now we have come to understand that prayer is not so much about our getting what we want as it is in being in His presence.
At its core, prayer is about sitting at His feet as Mary sat at the feet of Jesus when He came to her home for dinner.   The story is easy to remember.  Martha, her sister, was busy with the doing while Mary only wanted to sit and soak up every word Jesus spoke.  For her nothing was more important than being in the presence of Jesus and hearing His every word.  She provides for us a wonderful model of prayer.  We do the talking part well enough.  More time needs to be spent on learning to be in His presence with all our senses primed to listen. 

This "being" and listening does not come easy for most of us.  Everything about who we are takes us in a different direction.  So, if we are going to get from where we started to the place Mary models for us, we will have to do at least two things.  First, we will have to ask God to help us as we move from "mind prayers" to "heart prayers."  And secondly, we will have to practice without a fear of not getting it right the first time.  Yes, practice.  We will have to work at learning how to listen for the voice of God.  Listening for His voice is different, but it is better to hear one Word from God than to speak a thousand words to Him.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Lent XX

How is the Practice of Being in His Presence working out?  Last Monday we were challenged to live out this past week spending twenty minutes a day in His presence.  For some of us twenty minutes is not much time at all, but for others it is very much a challenge.  We tend to have short attention spans when it comes to spiritual things.  We can watch a three hour movie, or watch a basketball game going into multiple overtimes, but put us in a spiritual setting and the quicker the better.  Even the church promotes such a mentality.  A few days ago a church promoted its Ash Wednesday service by inviting folks to attend "a brief Ash Wednesday service."   Obviously, who ever put the invitation together thought "brief" was better and more attractive to the worshippers of this culture.  And, who is say such is not true?
But, brief is not what we are about in these days of Lent.  We are about drawing ourselves into the presence of God in a more meaningful, a more intimate, a more powerful way.  This week as we involve ourselves in the Practice of Being in His Presence, we add an additional ten minutes to our daily commitment of time.  One half hour seems like an impossible time to those who like brief.  It also seems difficult to those who really want to move into a deeper walk with God.  As we move forward try thinking about the time as being two fifteen minute segments.  Begin each one with a devotional reading, some scripture reading, and then some time of praying.  In the first segment use the praying time for praise and thanksgiving.  In the second use it as a time of intercession for others.

It has often seemed that being open to experimenting in our prayer life can lead us into an experience of learning more about prayer and more about ourselves.  God is not limited by one method or approach, but is surely open to whatever we might do that will put us in a position of being more attune and more attentive to Him.  Always remember the goal is not more time, but more of being in the presence of God.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Lent XIX...The Third Sunday

John is one of the Bible's great story tellers.  He also tells long stories.  Three of his stories take up a lot of space:  the woman at the well (4:1-42); the man born blind (9:1-41); and Lazarus (11:1-44).  They are so long they are seldom read completely from the pulpit lest the pew sitter falls asleep from unaccustomed listening.  But, not even short attention spans changes the fact that each one of these long stories are powerful and unforgettable.  The story of the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well is one of the first stories I preached on long, long years ago and shows up this year in the lectionary on this third Sunday in Lent.
It is one of those stories with many open windows.  Each time we look, there is something different to see.   As the encounter between this woman and Jesus winds down, the disciples show up after having gone on a grocery shopping spree in the village.  When they saw the woman with Jesus, they acted like she was not there.  No one spoke to her.  Certainly, they looked at her.  No doubt their demeanor and judgmental silence made her feel like she felt around most of the community's religious people.  To underscore her invisible presence in their midst, when she left the disciples opened up their grocery bags and said to Jesus, 'Rabbi, eat something."  Jesus must have looked upon them and their reaction to the moment in an incredulous way.  "How could they pretend she was not even there?" He must have thought.  Whatever might be said, it is obvious they were a long way from where He wanted them to be.

Yet, we can understand the reaction of those disciples.  After all, she was a Samaritan woman and they were Jews.  They were different and always had been.  Neither of their cultures allowed for any kind of acceptance.  And, we also see the invisible folks around us.  Looks like a strange sentence, does it not?  How do we see the invisible folks if they are invisible?  And if they exist, who are they?And, then the final question, if they do exist and we do not see them....why?


Saturday, March 22, 2014


I have just finished reading a book entitled, "Bonhoeffer" by Eric Metaxas.  If you are a browser at any bookstore, you likely have seen the volume with this bespectacled man peering at you from the cover.  I knew about this German martyr of WWII, but after reading the book, I realized how little I knew about someone who lived such an extraordinary life of faith.  One of the things which struck me about his life was his commitment to an ordered approach to spiritual disciplines.  When he started a seminary for ordinands, he made sure their daily routine was filled with ample time for meditating on the Scripture and prayer.  What is described is nothing like I remember from my seminary days.
And when Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned, he only continued with this life long practice of an ordered life filled with prayer and the Word.  The author wrote, "From the beginning of his time until the end, Bonhoeffer maintained the daily discipline of scripture meditation and prayer he had been practicing for more than a decade. Each morning he meditated for at least half an hour on a verse of Scripture.  And he interceded for his friends and relatives and for his brothers in the Confessing Church."  To a friend he wrote that this life gave continuity and grounding when caught up in different circumstances.
One of things we are caused to see is the careless way we practice spiritual disciplines.  How different our spiritual journey would be if we were determined to pray and meditate on the Word in an ordered and deliberate manner.  How different our life would be if we began and ended each day with prayer and the Word.  It was one of those things which sustained this martyr in his last years and days as he waited for whatever it was that was before him.  We are faced with such lesser things than was he.  Perhaps, it is one of the reasons we live believing that we can go it alone without the constant help of our Father God. 

Friday, March 21, 2014


About a year ago, a fellow sojourner gave me a book which has become one that stays close, especially during these Lenten days.  It was written by Elizabeth Tickle out of the Episcopal tradition and is entitled "The Divine Hours, Prayers for Springtime."   For the months of February through May she provides four different orders of prayers and readings for the reader to use at appointed hours in the day.  Using it according to her design is like becoming immersed in moments of worship four times each day.
Having appointed hours for prayer is not a new thing.  The Scripture points us to the practice.  One of the more memorable stories about praying at the appointed hours is the story of Peter's rooftop prayer when he was led to Cornelius.  Six in the morning, again at nine, at noon, and at three in the afternoon were designated times of prayer.  Peter was praying at one of these times when he had his vision that changed forever the way the church viewed its mission.  Elizabeth Tickle invites and encourages believers to follow such a practice in their daily life with God.  She makes it clear the practice is not just something for the residents of monasteries, but for all of us. 
So what keeps us from praying and worshipping in such a way?  Oh, I know the excuses.  Yours are mine.  But, I also know I can choose to move in the direction she points me.  Recently I memorized the 46th Psalm so that I can carry it with me wherever I go.  It is an easy thing now to simply stop where I am throughout the day and use it as a focus for a moment of being in the presence of God.  The only excuse I have now is choosing not to avail myself of the opportunity.   

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Lent XVI

There are a lot of books written on prayer and I have read more than my share.  As I look at my own collection of books, I find that a great number of them center on this particular discipline.  And there are also many spiritual giants who are known well for their commitment to prayer.  When I think of people who have had a powerful influence on the work of God's kingdom, some of their names are remembered.  What is easy to do is become immersed in the reading and the remembering.  What is easy is pointing to the great men and women who have given their lives to works of prayer.  What is hard is walking the path that they have walked.
Yet, it is a path we can never really cease walking if we are serious about God.  We may wander from
the way we set out to go, but the way of prayer is like an every present beacon to the believer.  We may wander from it as a part of our daily life, but inevitably we find ourselves being drawn back into this spiritual discipline which enables us to share such intimacy with our Father God.  There are, of course, many things for which we might offer repentance in these days of Lent and our carelessness in our praying is certainly one of them.  Some times when faced with repeated failures at something so important, we become guilty enough we find ourselves ashamed to ask once again for the forgiveness we need.

God is surely never so disappointed in us that He will not look upon a heart full of regret and desire for a different way.  Struggling in prayer is not an uncommon experience for most of us.  But, it is too important for our spiritual health to give up on ourselves and the value of this particular spiritual discipline.  Regardless of how tough it has been lately, jump back into that stream of prayer going on all around us and once again know the grace and mercy of a God who seeks us more than we have ever thought of seeking Him.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Lent XV

Living in the country has introduced me to a new kind of silence.  Being about a half mile from the nearest paved road means a lot of the noise I have grown accustomed over a lifetime is no more.  It also means I am hearing things I have never before heard.  I have learned to hear the sounds of a whining baby goose frantically flying through the air behind its Momma.  I have heard the sound of bird wings flapping in the air above my heard.  And did you know that grazing cows make a pulling noise as the grass gets wrapped around their tongues on its journey to one of its four stomachs?   When it gets quiet enough and you allow yourself to become a part of the quietness, it is amazing the things which can be heard.
The Word tells us to be still so that we can know and experience God.  When we pray we can enter into that still quietness where the voice of God can be known.  The problem for most of us is creating the quietness.  Our lives are normally filled with so much noise clutter that hearing anything above it is all but impossible.  It can be an interesting thing to sit in a place and choose to reduce the noise that can be eliminated until there is finally nothing but the quiet.  As we do this in our praying and as we allow ourselves to become immersed in that quietness, there are spiritual blessings of presence to know that most of us would have regarded as impossible.
One of the hardest things we do in our praying is to learn to experience the silence where the voice of God is so often heard.  Maybe we really are afraid of it.  Maybe we are addicted to the noise.  Maybe we might actually hear a Word which will require us to act.  Whatever it is, we want to run from the silence and when we do, we are running from the blessing of being in the presence of this God who has such a deep desire for us to know intimate communion with Him. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Lent XIV

Each year we are invited to observe a holy Lent by practicing spiritual disciplines.  While there are many disciplines which are a part of our Christian experience, the two bedrock disciplines are surely prayer and the reading of the Word.  It is impossible to imagine a spiritual life with God without these two practices being an important part of what we do each day.  Prayer is that conduit of communication which sustains our relationship with Him and through the reading of the Word we are enabled to hear His Word being spoken to us within the context of our life. 
Actually, hearing His Word is a vital part of a mature prayer life.  For most of us it takes a while to realize that the listening is an overlooked, or uncultivated part of our prayer life.  For us to be able to hear what God is saying to us through our prayers involves embracing a number of beliefs.  First, there has to be for us a conviction that He is.  Secondly, we must know God as a personal Father God who loves and cares for us even beyond our understanding of the earthly Father/child relationship.  Thirdly, prayer is not a one way street of us speaking and Him listening.  He desires to speak to us even more than we do to Him.  And finally, the only thing which keeps us from hearing His voice is our own lack of expectations and our unwillingness to learn the discipline of listening.

Of course, coming to this place of learning to listen for the voice of God in the quiet still moments of our devotional life is not something that just happens for most of us.  There is always a sense in which spiritual disciplines are practiced.  Practice is a vital part of many disciplines.  Anyone who wants to move from the dabbler to the one who excels not only understands the value of discipline but practices it as well.  It can be no different for those of us who desire to experience a walk with God which enables us to hear and know His voice in our hearts.   

Monday, March 17, 2014


Last Monday I made a suggestion to those who had  heard the Invitation to Observe a Holy Lent and wanted to take it seriously:  Use these weeks of Lent to Practice Being in His Presence.  The spiritual challenge was to move toward spending a hour a day being in the presence of God.  Of course, jumping into that kind of time commitment would mean immediate failure for many of us so the goal for last week was to spend ten minutes each day this past week being in the presence of God.  If we add ten minutes for each week of Lent, we will find ourselves at the end of this holy season someplace we never thought we would be in our spiritual life.

So, as we move into the second week of Lent, we are ready to add an additional ten minutes.   Will we decide now to spend more time being in His presence?  When we think about twenty minutes, it seems like such a short amount of time until we start thinking about it being the time we are giving to God.  There is a part of us that wonders if it is something which can really be done.  We will not know until we commit not to try, but commit to do it.  One thing which might be added this week is the discipline of praying the Psalms.  Pick out one of the Psalms and read it aloud and then after a moment pray it.  Keep the Word open before you.  Paraphrase the words so that they become a prayer.  For example begin the 23rd Psalm praying, "Lord, I need You to be the One to take care of my life.  According to Your mercy, provide those things which I need for living.  Help me to depend on You to provide and lead me...."

Most of us pray in such a predictable way.  As difficult as it is to admit, hearing one of our prayers is to hear them all.  We follow the same routine, observe the same ritual, use the same words, pray with such limited expectations, and get it all done in such a few minutes.  Praying the Psalms or some other part of the Word can serve as a way of helping us to break out of prayers that are not only predicable but boring.  God is sure to listen regardless of how we pray, but sometimes we might wonder if He gets bored by the same stuff over and over and over.  Consider adding those minutes this week with something new.  You may be surprised at the difference. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lent XII...The Second Sunday

The second Sunday of Lent introduces us to Nicodemus.  Actually, most of us need no introduction.  By now we are well acquainted with this nocturnal visitor of Jesus.  The story told in the third chapter of John is one of those Biblical stories that seems unfinished.  It tells us of this Pharisee's spiritual struggle and Jesus' response to him, but then our search for the ending of the narrative disappears in a teaching of Jesus.  We are left wondering about this seeker who secretly came to Jesus under the cover of darkness.  John's gospel is almost finished when we read the conclusion of the story.  Nicodemus came to faith in Christ for in the 39th verse of the John 19, we see him and Joseph of Arimathea taking down the body of Jesus from the cross.  The seeker who came by night lest he been seen is seen once again, but this time in the light of day and as a man of faith.
We wish we knew more about the spiritual journey that brought him to the place of this public witness before the cross, but there is nothing.  But, then, it is like that for us as well.  There may be a few moments of our faith journey seen by others, but most of it is lived out off stage.  No spotlights are shining on us.  No one really sees the forward movement of our faith, or the struggles which seem to set us back.  Only God really sees the whole of the journey and only He understands how it is that we got to where we are from where we were.  There is a sense in which our faith is a very public matter, yet, it is also something which is fleshed out in the quiet unseen experiences of our life.

What is true of Nicodemus is true of any one of us.  If we come to faith and if we are able at some point to step out boldly for all to see, it is only because of the way God's grace is at work in us.  Clearly, Nicodemus was one who tried it the other way.  He came to Jesus thinking it was all about him and what he had done.  We have walked that way as well.  Sometimes we even go back to it and try again.  But, in the end, it is about grace.  From beginning to the end, this life with Christ is all about unconditional grace.  It is what got us started.  It will bring us home.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Lent XI

Penance, or doing penance, is something which is a bit alien to those of us who are of the Protestant tradition.   In the Roman Catholic tradition, someone who confesses their sins to the priest is often told to do some form of penance as a way of experiencing God's forgiveness.  This may be some act or the praying of certain prayers a prescribed number of times.  It is the priest who determines the severity of the sin and assigns the proper penance.  If such a simplistic understanding of this process is somehow offensive to some who make this a part of their spiritual practice, I ask for grace. 
As this part of the Lenten invitation is considered, many of us are taken to that passage in I John which reads, "If we confess our sins, He who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."  (I John 1:9)  An earlier Word reads, "...the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin."  (I John 1:7)  When it comes to receiving God's forgiveness, there is not a whole lot we can do.  We are called to confess our sins, to acknowledge what is wrong; and to be accountable for it, but, divine forgiveness is a precious gift granted to us because of what God has done for us through His Son on the cross.  If there is an act of penance done for our sins, it is the shedding of the blood of Jesus.  Forgiveness is more about what God has done than what we might do.  It is more about grace than some work we do or act we perform.

The Lenten disciplines put us in touch with what is in our heart and the place that our relationship really has in our life.  When we begin to probe around in that area, most of us find that there are things which need to be confessed to God.  As we offer our confession to God, about all we can really do is cast ourselves upon Him praying that ancient prayer, "Lord, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy on me a sinner."   And then it is as it always is.  Then, it is all about grace.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Lent X

Self-examination will lead to penitence as surely as hard work on a summer day demands a drink of cold water.  The penitence may not be as pleasurable as the cold drink, but such is where we will find ourselves if we truly do the work of heart examination.  What we want to do with what we find in our heart is to make light of it.  We want to call it something other than sin which separates us from God.  We want to deceive ourselves into believing that any sin that does exist is actually someone else's fault.  And if we do find it necessary to ask for forgiveness, we do so with an attitude that takes the grace of God for granted.  Most will remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer's, "The Cost of Discipleship," and the way he wrote about cheap grace. 

"Cheap grace" is what we create when we sin anyway figuring that God is always going to be willing to forgive us.  Buying into it gives a way out of doing the hard work of penance.  When we go back to that 51st Psalm of David, we hear the agony of a repentant man who faced his sin and was horrified at what he had done to himself and what he had done against God.  He knew his only hope was the love and mercy of God.  "Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your steadfast love; according to Your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions."   When we are truly penitent, we, too, know that we are undone, without hope unless God steps in to change the direction of the consequences of our sin.

If Lent is truly a season of preparing the heart to be in the presence of God, then this work to which the Lenten invitation beckons us is something which should take precedence over all the other work of our life.  The thing David feared the most was being cast away from the presence of God and having to live without an awareness of the Holy Spirit in his heart.  With such serious consequences out there awaiting us because of our sin, the work of penitence can never be seen as too costly.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Lent IX

The Invitation to Observe a Holy Lent calls us to do so , "by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; and by reading and meditating on the Word of God."   Self-examination may be hard to work into our schedule, but penitence in the church is even more rarely seen.   Those of us in the Protestant community are quite willing to leave that one to the Roman Catholics who confess and do penance.  Actually, doing penance is a rather strange concept to most of us.  It is one of those things which it seems that we vaguely understand, but then again, not really.

If we are seeking greater understanding in this area, the 51st Psalm is a good place to start.  Through the words King David we are able to see a penitent heart.  As most know this Psalm speaks of that moment after the prophet Nathan called King David to task for coercing Bathsheba to come to the palace and then building a mountain of sin through treachery, murder, betrayal, and deceit.  Verse 17 causes us to hear an important Word as it says, "The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise."  The contrite heart is the penitent heart.  It is what God desires for us to offer to Him in the aftermath of our sinful choices.  Reading the story of David's many acts of deception and the prayer of his penitent heart provide for us help in understanding how to respond to this Lenten invitation to practice penitence.

As we read the Psalm, it becomes obvious that the penitent heart is painfully honest about what has been done against God.  In our culture we make light of sin to the point that a casual and flippant, "Hey, I'm sorry about that God," seems like more than enough.  Too many of our day have no idea about the seriousness of the sin which darkens our soul and separates us from the One who calls us to a life with Him.  Without a serious attitude toward sin, penitence is an impossibility.  With it, nothing is more important.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


When I was in seminary a lifetime ago, one of the courses offered and required was a year of supervised ministry.   As students we were placed in various ministry settings.  One was a food distribution ministry; another was a half-way house for people working to transition from institutional life back into mainstream living.  In addition to the ministry setting, we also met with a faculty advisor who led a group of us in a weekly time of reflection.   While my first response was to talk about those I met, our faculty leader, Dr. Hand, was not really interested in that kind of sharing.  He wanted me and those in the group to reflect on our feelings, our thoughts, and how the experience was working in our hearts to bring about personal change.  As a young seminarian, I remember it to be a difficult process.  It was much easier to talk about them instead of me.
It always is that way for us.  It is far easier to see the things which need changing in our spouse, our neighbor, our colleague at work, or some different looking or acting member of our community.  Seeing what others need to do to change for the better is never a difficult task.  Seeing what I need to do is a different matter.  God is working in us to bring us to an outward life which reflects the way our heart is being changed by the presence of His Spirit.  Sometimes we really put ourselves in the way of that work and make it all but impossible.
These days of Lent can be for us a time to look at how all of this is going in our life.  Instead of looking at how someone else is doing in their spiritual journey, these days can become a time for us of looking at our journey of faith.  The discipline of self-examination to which Lent calls us invites us to think about how far we have come, where we have made forward movement, where we are still struggling, and why we are where we are.  There is no point in worrying about, or trying to figure out someone else.  The heart in us which directs our life is more than enough to keep us involved in spiritual work for a long time. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Lent VII

The real problem with the spiritual discipline of self-examination is that it requires time.  It requires not little pieces of it, but big chunks.   Every part of our culture makes it a difficult thing to do.  It would seem that the church would facilitate it, but when was the last time the church called folks together to experience the silence.  No, the church always has something for its people to do.  It has bought into the idea that the blessed Christian is the busy Christian.  Certainly, the market place is not such a place.  It is driven by performance and an activity level to push it along a faster pace.   Not even the home gives us any encouragement in this spiritual endeavor.  As soon as someone draws apart and gives the appearance of not doing something, he or she is bound to be asked, "What's wrong with you?"
No, anyone who wants to be involved in self-examination is going to have to view it as a radical departure from the norm and understand that it will require a radical re-prioritization to make it happen.  While this discipline may not be something to practice on a daily basis, it still remains an illusive thing for us.  Perhaps, it has to do with paying the price of the time, or, perhaps, it is the fact that we really do not want to deal with the possible end result of being called to lived differently.  One things is certain:  it is not just going to fit into our busy schedule.  We will either have to delete some of the time consuming trivia which is a part of our lives, or do something like get up earlier in order to add something which might have significant value. 

The discipline of self-examination is not just an exercise in navel gazing.  It is a discipline which can help us learn about the art of "being."   We have mastered the "doing" part of life; what remains is the harder part.  There are important things to be discovered.  Why can I not live in the present?  Why must life always be in the past or the future?  What is there about the present that threatens me so much I cannot experience it fully?   Could it be that not being able to live fully in the present is nothing more than my own lack of faith in the God who calls me to live taking no thought for tomorrow?  Could it be that depending on self still takes precedence over depending on God?  Important things. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Lent VI

Most of us remember Lent as the season for giving up something.   In the place I grew up we were given coin cards with a slot for each day of Lent.  Each slot would hold a dime.  Or, it was suggested that we give up something like cokes or chocolate for Lent.  As anyone can see, those were the days of big sacrifices!   After several decades of doing Lent as a pastor, it seemed more appropriate to call people to do something for Lent instead of to give something up for Lent.  Quite often, the doing ended up requiring some kind of sacrifice which was more difficult than passing up on a piece of candy.
So, a suggestion for those who have heard the Invitation to Observe a Holy Lent and want to take it seriously:  Use these weeks of Lent to Practice Being in His Presence.  Most of us want to spend more time in the presence of God; however, it is something we find difficult to do.  A few role models for this spiritual endeavor are Brother Lawrence, Frank Laubach, and Oswald Chambers.  Who among us would not like to spend more than just a few moments each day in the presence of God?  Who among us would like to spend an hour a day in His Presence?  While we might say, "Sure, but impossible..." maybe there is a way.  Have as a spiritual goal spending ten minutes in the presence of God each day this first week of Lent.  Read the Bible, pray, or do whatever you normally do in a devotional time.  Make ten minutes the goal.   Give it a try. 
When the second week of Lent comes along, add ten minutes to the time being spent in the presence of God.  Each week add ten more minutes and by Easter everything about your spiritual journey will be different.  Guaranteed!  Do not worry about later.  Practice the discipline a day at time.  Practice a week at a time.  Each Monday I will offer some suggestions to help you in this discipline of being in His presence.  And, we can always covenant to pray for one another as well.  How about it?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Lent V...The First Sunday

Into the wilderness is where the gospel lectionary lessons always take us on the first Sunday in Lent.  Each of the three first three gospel writers record this event which comes immediately after the baptism of Jesus at the Jordan River.  In the wilderness story there is a strange meeting of the Holy Spirit and Satan, temptations and spiritual disciplines, and Jesus.  The Scripture tells us Jesus is led by the Spirit into a season of fasting and prayer where He is tempted by Satan to take a short cut to accomplishing the desires of His heart without going to the cross. 
It is a temptation we all face.  We often read the passage and see only the particulars of the three temptations which enables us to dismiss the whole story as something which has no relevance to our personal struggle.  But, when we begin to understand how Jesus was tempted to take the short route instead of the long journey; the easy way instead of the hard way; and the premise that the end justifies the means, we start seeing ourselves in the picture.  These are our temptations.  We may not be tempted to turn stone into bread, or test God's protection when we jump off a high building, or live in such a way as to have power and authority over many, but still we are tempted to do good things for the wrong reasons.  We are tempted by the subtle siren of expediency.  We are tempted to take matters in our hands just in case God is not able to deliver what He has promised.
If Lent is truly a time of self-examination and reflection as well as a time of penitence, then this lesson certainly gives us much to put on the table of prayerful meditation.  It is one of those lessons that calls us to ask some hard questions about our own spiritual life.  Reading about the wilderness experience of Jesus can be done in such a way that we never feel the heat of the sun or the thirst or the tempting power of Satan.  Or, we can choose to linger in its Word with questions to God about the purity of our own heart.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Lent IV

The problem with a spiritual discipline is that it requires time.  Throw instant gratification out the window.  There is no spiritual microwave which gives us what we want in thirty seconds.  Neither is it like some powdered instant drink which only requires a little warm water.  There may be things which can be done in a hurry, but the practice of spiritual disciplines is not one of them.   The invitation which invites us to observe a holy Lent is a call to slow down and sit in the presence of God.  While to some it may seem like an invitation "to do," it is more an invitation "to be."  Surely, to be in the presence of God is the goal of this holy invitation.
What we want is this meaningful relationship with God.  We look with envy at some of those who seem to breathe life with God in and out like inhaling and exhaling.  We would do anything to be like them except the practice of spiritual disciplines.  Great musicians do not just pick up instruments and make music.  The concert stage is built with hours, and days, and years of practice.  It is no different in our spiritual lives.  What we want will require some effort on our part.  Actually, it will require more than just some effort.  It will require a lifetime of effort.  The human effort does not initiate the mysterious relationship between God and us, but like any good relationship, it will require significant sacrifice from us for it to reach its potential.
Is not this what we desire to happen in our lives during this Lenten season?  Would we not like to come to the end of this holy season and know a deeper sense of being one with Christ?  Spiritual disciplines are not glitzy things, but necessary things if we are going to truly experience the presence of God in an ongoing way in our spiritual life.  There is a big difference in being a seeker of blessings and a seeker of the One who gives the blessings.  Being with Him is what the invitation of this holy season is all about.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Lent III

Those who remember "The Invitation to Observe a Holy Lent"  from a few days ago will remember that it invited us to enter into a time of self-examination.  These early days of the Lenten season are filled with the sight of black smudged ashes on the forehead and the experience of standing toe-to-toe with someone who looks us in the eye just before saying, "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."   There is little wiggle room in that close personal encounter with someone who tells us we are going to die.  It is hard to walk away with the flippant attitude toward life that we carried with us to the place where the ashes waited.
Such a moment begs for self-examination.   What have I done with my life?  More importantly, what am I doing with it?  If I am going to die, then, how should I live?  What does it mean to live while waiting to die?  How do I decide what is worth the price of the energy of my life for the days which remain?  How can I go on living with those who love me without giving those relationships more, maybe even some, attention and care?  What does God think about the way I am living?   How comfortable am I with God being in the midst of all the details of my life?  Will I continue with business as usual in my living, or shall I really move toward radical change?
And, how great it would be if those were all the questions which rise out of heartfelt times of self-examination!  It is not a one size fits all.  While we may all share some of the same issues in our life, it is certainly true that each one of us carries different questions and issues into our times of self-examination.   The direction honesty with self takes us is surely as different we are different.  Lent invites us to carve out some chunks of time for this hard work of the soul.  Ah, but who will really go there and linger until this work of the heart is not started , but done?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Lent II

No doubt yesterday's suggestion seemed rather strange.  Sitting in front of a mirror for five minutes repeating our own name and the Ash Wednesday words of imposition is not exactly an uplifting experience.  Saying, "(Name), remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,"  in such a manner is both uncomfortable and disturbing.  It simply is not the kind of thing we attend worship expecting to hear.  Looking into the eyes of a pastor or priest at very close range and hearing them tell us we are going to die is indeed an unusual moment of worship.
Only in the church can you get that kind of raw honesty.   Of course, we all know we are going to die. You know, someday.  Not anytime soon.  You know, after the children bring home grandchildren and we become ancient.  Dying?  One day, yes, but not anytime soon.  We live nurturing such foolishness.  We need to be jolted.  We need to be reminded in a painfully personal way that our life is very fragile.  Only in the safety of the church where resurrection power is also preached do we dare allow someone with spiritual authority to tell us that we are not going to live on this earth forever.  Actually, though it may be many years, it is also just a few days.
We cannot rightly live without the Ash Wednesday words.  Allowing them to settle into our souls causes us to look seriously at what we are declaring to be the priorities of our life.  Hearing them causes us to recognize what is given value in our living.  Meditating on the words makes us come to terms with what or who we really worship.  Unless we look at our life through the lens of our mortality, we are likely to make the journey a wasted trip.  It may be a painful process, but it can also be a life changing moment as well as a life saving one.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Lent I...Ash Wednesday

Every now and again someone will say they attend worship because it makes them feel better.  It is an understandable response.  There is something about drawing aside to a place of worship, singing the majestic hymns of faith, and joining in the praying of God's people that does make us feel better;  yet, making us feel better is not really the purpose of worship.  And, certainly, this is true of Ash Wednesday worship.

Those who like to leave worship "feeling better" should stay away from Ash Wednesday worship.  While many things will happen today in sanctuaries and be called Ash Wednesday worship, such a service always includes the imposition of ashes along with the verbal reminder, "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return." So, the two chief components of Ash Wednesday worship is a symbol of a penitent spirit and words that pronounce in an up front manner our own mortality.  Instead of being joyous worship, full of the notes of celebration, worship on this day is more likely to be somber and reflective. 

If it is such a downer, why bother?  Who really wants to be told they are going to die?  Who wants to seek out pain, or that which makes us uncomfortable?  Perhaps, the point of it all is to jolt us into remembering who we really are.  We really are creatures dependent on the grace and mercy of our Creator God and the deliverance offered through His Son, Jesus.  For those unable to attend Ash Wednesday worship, go sit in front of a mirror and for five minutes call your name and say, "(Name), remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."  Hear it from your own lips over and over and over until the truth of these words settles deep in your soul. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Lent 2014

Lent is a well known season on the Christian calendar.  Even some of the non-liturgical communities of faith speak of it and recognize its unique place in the life of the church.  One of the traditions is the annual "Invitation to Observe a Holy Lent."   Though the language may vary a bit from one denomination to another, the gist of it remains the same.   The United Methodist ritual is one I have read many times over the years as I have led congregations into the Lenten season.
"Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:  Christians have always observed with great devotion the days of our Lord's passion and resurrection.  It became the custom of the church  to prepare for Easter by a season of penitence, fasting, and prayer.  This season of forty days provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for baptism into the body of Christ.  It is also the time when persons who had committed serious sins and had been separated from the community of faith were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the church.  The whole congregation is thus reminded of the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the need we all have to renew our baptismal faith.  I invite you, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; and by reading and meditating on the Word of God."
Normally, these words are read to begin the Ash Wednesday service, the event which ushers in the season of Lent.  Sometimes they are used on the first Sunday of Lent when the whole church gathers for worship.  I offer them to you now on this day before the Lenten season begins as a way of inviting you to join with me in making these days before Easter days which make a difference in our spiritual journey.