Friday, March 31, 2017

Reading the Word

Like you, I have been reading the Bible a long time.  A really long time.  I cannot remember a time I did not have a Bible.  The first one was a King James Version complete with all the important stuff documented by colorful pictures.  It even had a zipper which kept everything inside that had been put inside.  There have been many others since those childhood days of reading the Word.  What I have also learned is there are many reasons for reading.  In the beginning it was more about learning the information the Bible teaches.  Later on the reading was done for understanding. And, of course, the list of reasons includes sermon fodder, teaching material, and personal spiritual growth.
There was a time when my regimen required me to read a certain amount each day which made reading the Word little more than duty.  While reading out of a sense of duty may get us into the Word, there are surely better motives.  Nowadays, it is not so much about "how much is read" as it is "what is God saying here."  What I have come to believe is that the Word is truthful when it tells us it is the inspired written Word of God and within it is contained all that is necessary for our life with God.  (II Timothy 3:16-17) Reading while listening speaks more of what I try to do with my current time in the Word.  If God is speaking to us through the Word, then it only makes sense to be listening.
As we read the Word during these Lenten days, it might be a good thing to be more intentional about the listening part of this discipline of reading the Word.  We begin listening by praying.  "Lord, what is it You want me to hear from You as I read today."  Such might be a prayer to use before reading.  And then, as we read, let us expect to hear from God for unless we hear from God as we read His Word we have just been reading a book.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Mirror, Mirror,...

"Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?"  We all recognize these famous words as a line from the story of Snow White.  The wicked evil queen had a magic mirror which always answered the same for the wicked woman until Snow White appeared on the scene.  Unfortunately, none of us have a magical mirror that lies about how we look.  I sometimes wish I had one.  Whenever I look in the mirror these days, I wonder what happened to that lean and trim young guy with the head full of dark hair and unwrinkled skin.  I keep expecting him to show up when I look into the mirror, but my mirror speaks no lies.  Sometimes I think it might laugh at my surprise!
The Invitation to Observe a Holy Lent calls us to self-examination.  When it comes to such moments, most of us would like a magic mirror.  But, then, maybe we really do not need one.  We have a tendency to see ourselves as we want to see ourselves and not as other see us.  Certainly, we do not always see ourselves as God sees us.  Others may be judgmental, but we are just being honest.  Some have bad habits that are out of control, but we do the same while being in control.  We eat and drink and sin responsibly.  Such an attitude makes any attempts at self-examination an exercise in futility. 
Maybe we need a new mirror.  Maybe we need one that can be trusted.  Maybe we need one that is independent of anything that has to do with us.  One mirror that will give us an honest picture of ourselves is the Word of God as it is found in Scripture.  When we go to it looking for what it says about folks like me and you, we are likely to find some descriptive words we would rather ignore.  Words like "sinner" or "disobedient," or "stubborn."  Maybe, even "evil."  Hey, but don't ask me.  Just do not depend on the mirror you have hung on your wall.  Look at the one that has the real power to show us the human spirit that really resides in each one of us.   

Wednesday, March 29, 2017


When someone asks us to pray for them, they are asking for our prayers in their behalf.  But, it is also true that they are giving us an invitation to enter into a partnership with God as He seeks to work in the life of the one asking for prayers.  We sometimes wonder why God does not just act independently of everything going on around Him.  Certainly, He could.  As we read the Scripture there are times when it appears that God acts simply because He chooses.  Not every act of God is precipitated by the prayer of some faithful saint of God.  Still, the Word encourages us to pray.

And, we do.  While we are often tempted to think that the more the better when it comes to praying, what we know as truth is that the prayer of one person is heard by God and is useful to Him in accomplishing what He is about in the world.  The story of Daniel tells us about a man whose praying made a difference.  Elijah is another man who prayed alone and found himself in the middle of a great work of God.  Both of these Old Testament saints partnered with God in prayer and saw amazing things happening in their lives.

The same truth is operative in our day.  For some reason God chooses to use our prayers to accomplish what He is working toward in the lives of those who seek our prayers.  Understanding exactly how this happens is beyond the realm of human understanding, but we see too many examples of it happening to deny it works that way. We may think of ourselves in many ways, but partners in prayer should be one that encourages us to stay at it for extraordinary things are happening every day with God and He regards us as His partners in this amazing work.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

An Unexpected Destination

Exactly how I made it to the prophetic writing of Joel, I am not sure.  When I opened my Bible this morning, I had recently been reading Romans and had gone to I Thessalonians.  I suppose I figured I would meander around in Paul's letters a bit more, but suddenly there was this urge to go back to the Old Testament to the prophets.  For some reason I found myself looking for the book of Joel.  I reasoned it had been a long time since reading it and it would be an easier read than Ezekiel or Isaiah.  I was not ready for the Word which leaped from the middle of the 2nd chapter which said, "rend your hearts and not your clothing..."  (Joel 2:13)
Of course, the natural order calls for the tearing of clothes and not the heart.  While none of us have likely seen it happen, there are those moments described in the Scripture of sorrowful people so overwhelmed with their sins that they tear their clothes in anguish.  Today's culture would not see such people as repentant sinners, but people who need to be arrested because of indecent exposure.  But, the Word of God creates an image of people so distraught with their sins that they literally tear apart their clothing as an expression of their deep sorrow and shame.
So, Joel reverses the order.  Instead of calling people to rend the external, he calls them to rend the internal.  What an image is created here as we think of people like you and me so overwhelmed with a personal awareness of sin that we tear our heart.  The very seat of our sin, the place which speaks of the core of our disobedience against God is ripped open, left torn and bleeding because of the deep anguish we are experiencing.  What Joel is telling us is to go beyond a sorrow which causes us to rend something that speaks of our appearance to others to a deeper act of confession and sorrow seen only by ourselves and God. 

Monday, March 27, 2017

Words of Change

When the Invitation to Observe a Holy Lent calls for penitence and self-examination, one word immediately comes to mind.  Change.  If both those words are taken seriously, there is going to be some change taking place in our lives.  I remember from my Disciple Bible study days a question which always caused all of us more then just a little pause in the discussion.  One of the questions we were often asked to consider was, "If I take this passage seriously, what changes will I have to make in my life?"  It was a question which had the power to silence even the most verbose of the group around the table. 
The same thing can be said about the words penitence and self-examination.  Let us talk about prayer, or even fasting, or maybe reading the Bible.  Let us talk about anything except what is lurking inside my own heart.  But, nothing changes the truth that these two hard words speak of a harder spiritual discipline.  All of us like to look inward and see only the things that are good and attractive.  We do not want to see the things in our heart that really need to be changed.  To see those things is painful because it means we have to deal with the reality that there is something fundamentally wrong within us that not only affects who we are but also how we treat the people around us.
No one ever said the journey afforded to us in the Lenten season was going to be an easy journey.  The fact that we have before us the journey of Jesus to the cross should inform us that following Jesus is going to be a hard way.  We cannot accommodate sin in our life, our justify it, or pretend it is not present if we truly see ourselves in the light shed by the presence of Jesus.  Lent reminds us that there are always things about our life that are not as they ought to be and that we are the only ones who can choose to put ourselves on a path where change is possible.  Looking at our own heart and what causes us to live as we live is the first step.  Hard it may be, but it is necessary if change is going to be taking place in the important things of our life. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Getting It Right

Back when I was a greenhorn Methodist preacher, long on seminary know-how and short on common sense, I was assigned for the first time by a Bishop to the Stapleton Charge.  Three churches made up the Charge and, of course, one of them was named Stapleton.  After arriving I did some plundering around in an old box of dusty church records and learned that the Stapleton Church once bore the name of the Spread Church.  Further research took me a few miles out of town to a cemetery and the place where the Spread Church once stood.  When I read the church records, I learned that back in the late 1890's church members were dismissed from the membership of the church because they had been caught dancing.  Times do have a way of changing and sin along with it.
Way back before the Spread Church was purging its membership of all those who had music in their feet, the church removed people from its fellowship for grievous sins.  When Lent came into being as a season, one of its purposes was to provide a means for those who had been removed to be re-instated.  The Invitation to Observe a Holy Lent has within it those words which say, "...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."
Now maybe none of us have been removed from the fellowship of the church for dancing, or some serious sin, but it is not hard to figure that we might all have some things which need changing in our lives.  A good look in the mirror might even enable us to see how it is that some parts of our life speak of disobedience to God and things we would just as soon other folks not know.  Or, to put it more bluntly, a moment of real self-examination might cause us to see how our heart is under the influence and control of some un-handled sin.  Lent is a season for getting real about who we are before God.  It may be a painful process, but the end result is a renewed fellowship with the Christ who has died for us. 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Without Ceasing

The Word says, "...pray without ceasing..." (I Thessalonians 5:17) and we say, "Impossible!"  Some have tried it and wrote about it.  Some dare to share their attempt at this prayer that seems to have no beginning and no end.  But, no matter how bold and determined the attempt, any attempt is going to fail.  Anyone of us who has prayed a bit would offer no argument to the contrary.  Praying for long periods of time may be something some of us do, but few of us would claim that our praying could be described as unceasing.  They have starting points and they have ending points.
It seems that if we are going to somehow pray as the Word is calling us to pray, it will mean laying aside the patterns of prayer which characterize our praying.  To "pray without ceasing"  is going to require us to do some out of the box praying.  The way we do it is not going to cut it.  Actually, to speak of attempting to do it speaks more of our own human arrogance than a spiritual practice which is really dependent on the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  To "pray without ceasing" seems to be speaking more of our consciousness of being in the Presence of God than attempting to posture prayer twenty four hours a day.  When we are in the Presence of God, we begin to experience Him throughout the normal routines of our life and we find ourselves conversing with Him as we encounter the things that surprise us as well as the things which seem overwhelming to us.
As we reflect on this call to "pray without ceasing" we soon realize that prayer is no longer defined as a spiritual discipline which enables us to tell God what we need or want.  It ceases to be a moment for asking Him to do something for us or another.  These attempts to direct our communication with Him are forsaken.  In the place of this more pragmatic understanding of prayer which is dependent on our attempts at praying, we desire nothing through prayer except being in the Presence.  Our prayers are emptied of words that strive so that they can become heart driven expressions of our need to simply be with Him. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Prayer Surprises

I have had it happen a few times over the years.  Not often.  When it does happen, I am always surprised and amazed.  Humbled, too.  Every now and again I hear from someone in my faraway past who still remembers a prayer I offered to the Father in their behalf.  It is not that my prayers are so powerful.  They are surely no different than anyone else.  What I suspect caused these remembrances is simply that someone had a desperate need and another showed up to pray.  I know this more from being the one who needed the  prayers of another than being the one who prayed for another.  It always seemed to me in those moments of my need being met through the prayers of another that the whole business was God engineered.
For some this may sound a bit too far fetched.  Some may have trouble pointing to anything but sheer coincidence and if someone wants to hang that on moments when God is at work, then such is their prerogative.  As for me, I long ago quit seeing coincidences and started seeing the design of God at work in lives of people like me and you.  After all, if you pray for God to help, to bring a helper to you, and it happens, what other explanation makes any sense?
Our praying always has a purpose.  And, I believe, too, that our prayers have lives of their own.  I cannot imagine God hearing our desperate cries and forgetting them.  I may not be able to remember some of the prayers I have prayed, or some of the ones prayed in my behalf, but God surely hears, remembers, and holds these prayers forever in His heart.  We do not struggle alone.  God sees and even when we cannot see, He is working in our lives for our good.  Let us not grow weary in our prayers.  No prayer is ever wasted. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Ever Changing

Our understanding of prayer is one of those things that changes as we move through the decades of our life.  While it is true that our adult prayers are nothing like our childhood prayers, it may also be true that we pray now with a lost faith in prayer itself.  It is easy to get discouraged with prayers that seem to be making no difference on earth or in heaven.  There are those moments we wonder if God is listening.  Our prayers seem to fall on deaf ears.  As we struggle through some of these rough and difficult seasons of prayer, we lose some of the childlike wonder and expectations which filled our prayers as children.
It may be that part of the problem has to do with the way we are changing.  As we move away from the prayers our parents taught us at our bedside, we want a prayer experience that matches the maturity of our adulthood.  We do not need to look back at any pattern of prayer with the idea that it is a "one size fits all" kind of prayer.  As we grow and change, so will the pattern of our praying.  The praying we do is always driven by a different person because we change from one time in our life to another.  Everything around us changes.  We should expect the same to happen with the way we pray.  Actually, there might be a reason for concern if there has been no change at all since those beginning days with Jesus.

No particular model of prayer points us toward a prayer life of such maturity that change is no longer possible or necessary.  Arriving at some point of perfection in prayer is not something we will ever do.  People pray in all sorts of ways.  All we have to do is listen to realize this basic truth about prayer.  The child's prayer will evolve into something totally different.  The same is true of the prayer life that is married to a list of prayer concerns.  Not even the prayers of the contemplative are beyond the need for a freshness that speaks of the ever changing relationship we experience with God. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


A kind and encouraging friend once suggested I write a book on prayer to which I responded by saying, "Who wants a book on prayer?"  The book stores are full of books on prayer and I have more than a fair share of them.  So, after the exchange with my friend, I went out and bought another one.  I guess I answered my own question.  We never seem to have done enough reading on prayer.  Prayer is talked about, read about, preached about, and studied about more than any other spiritual discipline.  Too bad the practice of prayer in our personal lives does not always reflect it being the number one discipline on the spiritual discipline chart.
Jesus certainly walked the talk He did about prayer.  As we read the gospels, we keep seeing these images of him drawing aside for quiet moments of prayer.  We also hear many spontaneous examples of prayers that matched the emerging circumstances.  He is remembered for many different teachings, but none more than His teachings on prayer.  This particular discipline was so much a part of His life that He assumed anyone who followed Him would in a like manner pray which is why He said before teaching the most memorable prayer in history, "When you pray,.." (Luke 11:2)  He did not say, "If you pray..."  He said "when" which points us to His assumption about our praying.

The Lenten Invitation invites us to a season of prayer.  The Invitation is not based on the assumption that we are not praying during other parts of the year; instead, it is based on the assumption that anyone who follows Jesus on this journey to the cross is going to understand its importance and practice the discipline with renewed fervor and intensity.  And, at a different level the season provides us an opportunity to be consciously aware that we pray not alone, but with a spiritual community that stretches through the centuries into the present moment.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Guitar Man

When I was a boy walking the streets of downtown Waycross, Ga. on Saturday morning selling boiled peanuts for a dime a bag, I could always count on seeing one man every week on a particular corner.  Actually, I heard him before I saw him.  He would sit on a window ledge playing his guitar and singing some gospel song.  Attached to the fret board of his guitar was a tin cup.  Some of the people who passed his place would drop coins in the cup, but he never saw them.  His unseeing eyes were hidden behind dark glasses, but at the sound of every coin hitting the cup he would nod his head as a way of saying thanks.
His kind are long gone.  I cannot remember the last guitar man I saw.  What I do see is a new breed of folks at the traffic intersections where expressway ramps throw people onto the regular thoroughfares.  They carry no guitar.  They all seem to see.  They carry cardboard signs asking for help as they walk up and down the ramp flashing their sign at people who are waiting for the light to turn green.  As each flood of cars moves through the green light, he moves back to the point of the intersection and waits for the red light to come so he can start his journey again.
Of course, some might say the man with dark glasses could likely see and the man with sign had a get-a-way car parked nearby to take him to his apartment.  I don't know.  I just know they are still out there.  Whether I am seeing the poor or not, what I do see for sure is a sign that declares there are people around me who do not have near what I have.  The street panhandlers may make me uncomfortable and I may not know exactly what to do, but ignoring them or those they bring into view is not an option if I am to follow Christ.  The community created by faithfulness to God has always provided care for the poor.  The care offered by the community of the faithful is offered by individual believers like you and me.  Maybe we have allowed our discomfort to delay us long enough.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Giving to the Poor

The real problem with giving to the poor is not a lack of money, but our need to be sure that the people do whom we give are really poor.  We want to make sure they are deserving of our generosity.  We fear someone may be taking advantage of us, our willingness to give.  It has happened and we do not want it to happen again.  We would rather give our gifts and kindness to someone who is really in need and not to someone who is little more than a modern day huckster.  So, what often happens is nothing.  We give nothing.

The real problem; therefore, with giving to the poor is not the poor, but us.  Me and you.  Our need not to be taken advantage of is the problem.  One of the things that often happened when I was keeping regular hours as a pastor was folks in all sorts of trouble coming by the church office expecting a handout of some kind.  I learned over the years that many were not really in need.  I learned that showing up for what they could get from the church was a way of life for some.  But, there were also some who had genuine needs.  I had to decide early on if my fear of someone taking advantage of the church and its pastor was going to keep me from helping someone who was really in trouble.  Adopting a non-helping rule meant being careless with those in need of compassion and such was not a place I saw Jesus taking any of us who would follow after Him.

Of course, another problem with our giving to the poor has to do with the way those of us who are affluent allow ourselves to live in a comfortable bubble where anyone who wants to do better can do better.  Even though such is not always true, we have learned to live with this attitude which keeps us away from giving and helping.  Once again, the problem is not with the poor, but me and you.  Maybe this Lenten focus on almsgiving is designed to help us see some things about ourselves and the way we relate to a world in need all around us. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Lenten Giving

When I was a boy, it was common practice for the church to give everyone a slotted coin folder.  The plan always included doing without something and putting the money in the folder to make up an Easter offering.  Back then a candy bar cost a nickel and a second nickel would buy a coke.  Gas was around $.30 a gallon so life was definitely different.  Filling up a coin folder was not such a difficult thing.  Nowadays, it would have to be some kind of dollar folder!  But, as can be seen from the remembering, giving has been a Lenten discipline for some for a long time.
Actually, the discipline of giving has been around for what must be forever.  The earliest Bible stories tells stories of the faithful making gifts to God.  The "to God" part often gets lost with today's generation of church goers.  It often feels more like the giving is to the church instead of God.  And, if we are honest, such often seems to be the goal of the church although it would never be stated so bluntly.  The church always manages to cloak every kind of giving inside the framework of giving to God.  Maybe it is, but it often feels differently which may be why many today are hesitant to give.
It is not very exciting to pay the electric bill for the church even though it is a necessary expense. Still, it is true that the church gives us an opportunity to make gifts which enable the work of God in the world around us.  Maybe something different in this Lenten season might rejuvenate our giving.  Continue giving gifts according to what it committed, but consider an additional gift that will be marked by the following. One, completely anonymous.  Two, no waiting around for thanks.  Three, look for a gift involving something other than currency.  Four, ask God to give leading.  Five, expect Him to create a situation for the giving.  And, six, once in the God created giving situation, don't think, just give.  Finally, when it is all said and done, give thanks to God.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

A New Look at Giving

When we measure our giving by the standard set in that epic story found in the first verses of the 21st chapter of Luke, we find ourselves coming up short.  It is not only a story that is visual, but it is a story with a lot of noise as well.  Jesus is watching two people giving gifts in the Temple.  The offering receptacle is a bronze vessel shaped like a trumpet.  A rich man throws in a handful of big coins that clink and clank as they roll around making such a loud noise everyone looks to see who is making such an extraordinary gift.  When he is done, a poor widow throws in two copper coins which hardly make a sound as they quietly "slish" down the trumpet. 
There are two key words in the story.  One is the word "abundance" and the other is "poverty."  The rich man gave out of his abundance; the poor widow gave out of her poverty.  Most of us give gifts out of our abundance.  To give a gift out of our abundance means giving out of the leftovers.  It is not the kind of giving which involves risk taking as careful calculations have been made so that we are sure enough will be leftover after the giving to take care of all our wants and needs.  To give out of our poverty is to give gifts that express risk taking.  It is not the calculating gift, but the one which speaks of trust in God to provide.  The widow gave all she had so if tomorrow's needs were going to be met, God would have to provide.  The rich had enough left he did not feel any worry about tomorrow.
The Invitation to Observe a Holy Lent calls us to give gifts.  Before we get too caught up in this Lenten discipline and do things according to business as usual, there might be some value in looking at how our giving reflect our own trust in God to provide our needs.  As we read this story, we see how much is not as important as what kind of trust the giving represents. Does our giving speak of trusting in God, or trusting in our self?

Friday, March 17, 2017

Four Great Gifts

As a pastor and leader of worship, I have been close to the offering plates for over forty years.  Thus, I have been close to a lot of giving.  But, the most memorable gifts in my memory never made it to the offering plate.  As a young pastor in Talbotton, I witnessed a little girl come to another pastor who had no sandwich for lunch at Vacation Bible School and say, "Have some of my sandwich my mother made for me."  I remember another small child who came into my office at Perry when I was a much older pastor and a very discouraged one as well and she simply reached up with her arms giving me a hug.  A hour or so later as I was nursing my"abandoned by God" feelings, I realized God had just come to me with a hug.
But, it is not only the children who can give great gifts.  While at Vidalia I agreed to do the preaching for four nights of revival in the nearby town of Wrens.  Actually, it was not nearby, but an hour and a half drive.  My plan was to drive back and to each evening until a man came to me saying he wanted to drive me to the revival each evening to help me be more rested for the preaching.  I have always remembered his gift.  And, finally, while at Richmond Hill, I happened to be in the office when a young out of work father with three children brought in the nearly $1000 tithe he said he had promised the Lord to give. 
Oh, I have seen the big gifts that everyone saw as well.  I have seen those that made big sounds in the offering plate.  And, I have seen many other big gifts given for all the right reasons. Giving that surely pleased God.  Somehow though, these four gifts and others like them are remembered when I think of the great giving to God that I have witnessed over the years.  Surely, some of the giving we have done is in a like manner remembered by those blessed by it and noted in the Kingdom of God as well done.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Familiar Voice

The one voice we do not want to hear when we prayerfully position ourselves to listen for the voice of God is our own.  But, what is true is that our entering into the silence does not mean our own voice is silenced.  Instead, entrance into the silence where God speaks means entering into a place filled with competing voices.  As Jesus heard Satan during His forty days in the wilderness, it is likely his soft enticing whispers will once again be heard.  It is likely, too, that somewhere in the din of voices will be one seeking to make us feel guilty about the things we left undone.  And, most assuredly, we will hear the familiar sounds of our own voice.
In the beginning of our learning what it means to hear the voice of the Spirit, it will be easy to decide that our own voice is the voice of God.  When we ask God about the choices before us, it is always an easy thing for us to heed what we think is best and then give God the credit for revealing it to us. Tthe truth is we often already know what we want to hear God saying to us so we start saying in the quiet places of our heart with such fervency that we decide it must be Him who is speaking.  Listening to ourselves when we seek God's voice is the beginning of spiritual foolishness.
What is obvious is that this discipline of listening for the divine voice is not going to be an easy thing for the spiritual novice who is in a hurry.  It is often through trial and error that we begin to be able to discern what the voice of God sounds like in our own life.  Beginning failure does not mean it is time to give up.  It simply means that what we have come to understand as an important thing in our spiritual journey is going to take some time.  Most good things do.  As we continue to practice the discipline of listening for God in the silence, we will eventually recognize our own voice, the voice of the one who tries to drag us out of the silence, and the One whose voice is like water is to one dying in the desert.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Listening to God Story

In the Old Testament book known as I Samuel there is a great "listening to God" story.  The main character in the story is just a mere boy.  And though there is a real priest in the next room, it is the young apprentice who actually hears the voice of God and is finally given instructions about what to do when he hears again what he has confused with the voice of man.  Three times Samuel hears the voice of God calling his name.  Three times he wakes up the old priest, Eli, thinking that he is calling out to him.  After being awakened the third time, Eli is able to perceive what is happening.  "Go, lie down; and if He calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.' "  (I Samuel 3:9)
Many of us have likely missed out on something God was trying to say to us because such a thing happening was too much a possibility outside of our reality.  What was experienced was explained away as something other than God speaking.  Samuel figured what he was hearing had to be the voice of Eli.  Who else would be speaking to him in the middle of the night?  Who is to say God has not spoken and we never entertained the thought that it was God speaking?  In those moments we could have certainly benefited from an Eli in our life to turn our attention to what was happening.
For some of us it seems strange to speak words to God which anticipate a response that we will actually experience somewhere deep in our inner being.  There are simply too  many conversations between God and one of His servants recorded in the Word to dismiss this spiritual reality. God does not choose to be silent.  He speaks.  We are the ones who live believing those who talk about hearing a word from God are not in touch with reality when, in fact, they may have a firmer hold on it than we do.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


Discernment is important for anyone who becomes intentional about learning to hear the voice of God.  When the divine voice of the Spirit is heard, it is not usually heralded by a loud drum roll, but heard in the midst of deep silence.  The silence is created as we begin to peel away all the sounds we have grown accustomed to hearing and allow ourselves to enter into a place not often frequented.  To think of entering such space makes us uncomfortable because what makes us comfortable is the noise.  Most of us do not cultivate the silence.  We run from it.
The voices which compete for our quiet still moments may not be a voice at all.  It may be something which we hold in our hand that we have allowed to control the way we spend our waking moments.  There is, perhaps, no bigger distraction in our life these days than that miniature screen which connects us to whatever it is that seems to be more important than being where we are in the present moment.  Even when we are not scrolling and looking, we are wondering what we are missing.  Have we not become the picture of ridiculous?    
The contemplative would teach us about centering prayer, but then we must have a mind and heart that wants to learn in order to listen to their lessons.  Centering prayer is about emptying the consciousness so that there is space for the Spirit to be present and to speak.  It often involves acknowledging the distractions and the competing voices so that we can see and hear them for what they are.  We may not really be ready for this kind of moment with God.  We may not believe it is possible to hear so we close our ears.  Or, we may not be willing to put aside the trivial in order to experience the extraordinary.  Unfortunately, we do not always make the best choices.  But, we can change.  Surely, this is one of the messages of these Lenten days. 

Monday, March 13, 2017


Listening for the voice of God in set aside moments of quietness is not always as easy as some might think it should be.  What most of us discover is that it takes repeated trips to the learning tree before we are able to hear what can be discerned as the voice of God.  What makes it difficult is the fact that there is more than one voice which can be heard.  When Jesus went to the wilderness after His baptism, a voice He heard very clearly was the voice of Satan.  He heard it not once, but often.  He was out there trying to get a handle on what the Father in heaven wanted Him to do and it would seem that the evil one kept popping up.
It should be no surprise when the same thing happens to us.  When we decide to become intentional about listening for the voice of God, the evil one is likely to use the moment to convince us that his voice is the one we are waiting to hear.  Many a person has gone down the road of doing a good thing for the wrong reason.  Satan seems to be the master at this kind of deception.  Since he is always seeking to undermine what God is doing, we should expect this kind of interference as we begin our own experience of seeking to know the voice of God in our own heart.
Satan is such a master at his craft of deception that it is not always easy to know that we are listening to the wrong voice.  As we move into this discipline, we should not rush.  Staying in the quietness and allowing the stillness to take hold of our inner life is not something which lends itself to the habits and demands of our hurried life style.  Until we have practiced this discipline long enough to have some certainty about how God speaks to us, it is always wise to listen past the first sense that the Spirit is speaking a word in our heart.   

Sunday, March 12, 2017


In my teenage ham radio days, I learned there were two kinds of interference which made listening difficult.  One was abbreviated QRN which meant natural interference such as static, or some atmospheric condition.  A second was abbreviated QRM which referred to man made interference.  When several people were operating on the same frequency, or nearly the same frequency, it made listening to a weak distant signal difficult.  But, one of the things learned through hours and hours of listening was the way to hear the smaller, weaker, distant signals even though close and more powerful signals were overpowering the radio receiver. 
Lent is all about hearing the quiet steady voice of God even in the midst of the loud bombarding voices which are constantly overpowering our senses.  It challenges us to experience stillness when chaos flourishes all around us.  While we can control some of the noise and confusion which swirls around us, it is also true that it is one of the givens for most of us.  We live in this perpetual state of constantly being bombarded by powerful voices which makes hearing what God would say to us a most difficult endeavor.  One of the things Lent seeks to do is to help us to listen. 
For most of us, listening to the quiet voice of God is something we have to learn to do.  It does not come naturally for most of us.  And when we talk about learning, what is usually required is some kind of practice.  The assumption is that it will be difficult and that we will fail on the way to the goal of becoming one who is able to hear the voice of God in the midst of the chaos of our life.  The first step is believing that He has spoken to folks in the past and that He continues to do so in the present.  Without that foundation, we have no ears to hear.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Remembering Why

When fasting it is always important to keep the reason for practicing the spiritual discipline in the forefront of our thinking.  Otherwise, the whole experience is likely to turn into something which has little spiritual value.  When we come to the moment of not eating, what happens is important and reveals what really motivates us.  For example, if we come to the meal we have chosen not to eat and simply use it as time to get more work done, we have missed the mark.  Or, if we silently pat ourselves on the back for being able to go so long without food, we have once again missed the mark.  What might seem like stomach work to some is really heart work.
We must remember why we fast.  What is our goal?  If our goal in fasting is to be more conscious of the presence of God in our daily life, then the moment of not eating should bring this to mind instead of our thinking we have more time to work.  Instead of working, reading the Word during the time normally used to eat would be an appropriate move.  Or, perhaps, the time could be used to draw aside into a quiet moment for prayer.  It is not enough to choose not to eat.  It is not enough to do without something.  What we put it the place emptied by the fasting says volumes about the real reason for our fasting.
One thing which often happens in fasting is that the moment of food deprivation can become a moment for letting our mind and heart move toward God.  As the food starts toward our mouth and we remember why we said we were not going to eat it, the very moment of choosing to fast becomes a moment filled with divine possibility.  In our hunger and desire for food, we can begin to catch a glimpse of what a life is like when it hungers for God.  It is this person that fasting enables us to see.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Practical Stuff

Fasting is not a spiritual discipline to be undertaken with extravagant enthusiasm.  Those who think that if a little is good, a lot is better should tread slowly.  Jesus may have been able to handle forty days in the wilderness, but beginners with fasting should start out with a much smaller amount of time.  There is wisdom in starting out slow in order to see how the body reacts to not having its usual intake of food.  Always care should be exercised to make sure there are no health issues which might be triggered by a lack of food.  The first fast might simply be as long as one meal.  God has no problem with the common sense approach.
After fasting in smaller measures without any physical problems, it is time to move forward into a fast that encompasses greater amounts of time.  A day fast might be the next step before launching out into a larger fast of two or three days.  It has always seemed that a good fasting period was one that started after Maundy Thursday communion and ended after sunrise on Easter morning.  But, like a runner who wants to run long distances, become comfortable with smaller time spans first.
Always keep in mind the purpose of the fast.  It is not a discipline designed for beating up our bodies, or testing our physical ability to do without food for a long period of time. When we start feeling good about how long we are fasting, we have likely allowed ourselves to be captured by pride in what we can do.  Fasting is not something that measures what we can do.  Instead, it is a spiritual discipline which can help us understand what God is doing in our life.   

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A Consuming Passion

Let's face it.  Admit it.  Eating consumes us.  We do it not because it is necessary, or because we are hungry, but because this clock inside of us tells us we must eat.  More than three times a day it sounds the alarm and sends us searching for another bite or two.  Those who sell know how to play us.  They know our weakness which is why things like "Twinkies," doughnuts, and candy line the ever narrowing aisle which takes us into the check out area.  We did not plan to eat one, but it looks good, and soon we are ripping off the wrapper and devouring it as if we have not eaten in a month. 
It makes us wonder sometimes if we are in control of our eating, or if our eating in control of us.  The Lenten season invites us to use this passion as a way of re-directing our life.  Fasting is a spiritual discipline which is seldom practiced, but one which has potential to help us see how we are controlled by the things around us instead of allowing ourselves to be controlled by the One within us.  The Psalmist wrote in the 63rd Psalm, "O God,...Your steadfast love is better than life."  Here is a Word written by a man who was consumed with the love of God instead of being consumed by the external things of life which provide temporary gratification. 
A good question to ask ourselves as we struggle through a time of fasting is his question.  "Is the steadfast love of God more important to me than anything in this life?"  Most of us are likely to end up answering "no" if we answer honestly.  Lent is about changing the answer.  Lent is about repenting of a wrong choice and choosing another.  Strange as it may sound, doing without food for spiritual reasons may be just the thing which helps us see the seriousness of our choices.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

A Strange Discipline

The one spiritual discipline no one rushes toward is fasting.  Talk about something which goes against the grain!  We are a nation of people who eat and eat and eat.  There may be a lot of churches up and down our streets, but they are overshadowed in number by the number of places where people can eat.  Church Row has been replaced by Fast Food Row!  And to make sure what is obvious is always in the forefront, advertisers are constantly bombarding us with words and pictures telling us how much we need to eat what they are offering.  Of course, most of us do not need too much encouragement.  Eating has become a national pastime.

How strange that the Lenten Invitation calls us to fast.  For the those who might think the word has to do with the pace of living, know that it refers to abstaining from food for a specific time.  But, it is the purpose which is important.  Fasting is not about dieting, or losing weight.  Instead, fasting is a spiritual discipline which enables us to be more focused on the presence of God in our life.  We sometimes hear folks around us talking about fasting to lose weight, but they are simply misusing the term.  Fasting is always a spiritual exercise which enables us experience divine presence as well as experiencing spiritual benefits.

It seems strange to put something as physical as eating up as something which can provide spiritual blessings, but it is true, nonetheless.  Think for a minute.  How many times a day do we either eat or think about eating?  How would our day be different if every time we thought about eating, we remembered that we were not eating as a way of becoming conscious of God's presence and His will in our life?  Think about it.  If there is no prohibitive medical reason, try it.  Decide to fast for one day and find out this basic truth about fasting.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Spiritual Fuel

Spiritual disciplines are like fuel for the journey.  Unlike the fuel which propels our machines, this spiritual fuel is not something which can be stored.  As we remember the gospels, we remember those images of Jesus constantly drawing aside, separating Himself from people and the ministry that was His, to spent time alone with the Father in heaven.  It was not something done once, but many times.  And, as One who sought the best for those who followed Him, He gave instructions about giving, fasting, praying, and worshipping.  What He knew as necessary for His own life, He knew would be necessary for those who were His disciples.
Those who figure they can get started on this journey of faith and then coast to the finish are in for a surprise.  Actually, they are in for a faith that is dry and arid and dusty and useless.  We cannot walk the way Jesus walked alone.  We need His presence and the spiritual power He gives in order to make it.  The way provided for us to receive what is necessary to fuel the spiritual journey is through the practice of spiritual disciplines.  We are not called to be experts, just those who practice.
It is not our lack of knowledge that hinders us in the practice of spiritual disciplines, but our heart.  There is plenty of information for us to read and digest.  What hinders us is that we always are tempted to think there is a better way.  We can live without taking the time to be with our heavenly Father.  Those things we allow to consume our time we justify as necessary to provide for our families, or to keep our sanity, but their place in our lives also speak volumes about where we place our ultimate trust.  Spiritual disciplines help us to focus on trusting God.  Carelessness in this important dimension of our spiritual life may seem like a good choice for a time, but it will finally take us to disaster because it takes us away from the God who can enable and equip us for living our life.   

Monday, March 6, 2017

Be Free

The Invitation to Observe a Holy Lent is an invitation to practice spiritual disciplines.  It would seem that the disciplines of the Christian life would be an easier thing for us.  We understand that the primary benefit to each one of us is a stronger connection to God.  A strong connection is a life giving connection in that it helps us to focus our life on the will of God for our life, it opens our inner life to a greater sense of wonder and mystery, and through the practice of disciplines we find that our life is more centered on what is important and less distracted by the things that cause us to be out of step with what God is seeking to do in our life.  Life is immeasurably enhanced and made better through our involvement in spiritual disciplines.
But, the truth is, we struggle.  Knowing what is good for us is never a guarantee that we are going to do it.  Too many times we see the practice of spiritual disciplines as our duty.  We think about them as something we ought to do, should do, but do not do as we should so they end up becoming a source of frustration, failure, and guilt for us.  It is no wonder we find ourselves coming to a place of "non-practice."  They seem to bring more negatives to the table than positives.  After a time our life of "non-practice" becomes the norm and we learn to live with the negative feelings without thinking about them or being bothered by them.  Since everyone struggles with spiritual disciplines, it is ok for us to struggle with them, too.
These legalistic boundaries we place around the practice of spiritual disciplines create all sorts of hindrances for us as we seek to renew our commitment to these ancient disciplines.  Having to pray a certain amount of time in a certain way, or having to read a certain amount of Scripture sets us up to fail.  Remember this.  At the core of spiritual disciplines is the practice of the Presence.  Forget the legalistic boundaries and simply allow a moment for being in the Presence of God.  Be free not to do anything and free to do everything. 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Invitation

"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."
These are words some may not have heard today at worship or last week at the Ash Wednesday service, but they still remain important for the church and those of us who seek to remember the journey of Christ to the cross.  The Invitation gives us a historical word, but it also serves to inform those who worship what it means to observe a holy Lent.  Obviously, an important part of Lent has to do with our participating in a renewed manner the disciplines of the spiritual life.  These disciplines are important.  They have a way of helping us see the important things of life.  They also help us to know what it is to know the presence of God at the center of our lives.  Read the words again and again.  Know you are one of the ones being invited to observe a holy Lent.
I invite you to share in this journey of faith.  Read the Word as it tells us of the way which took Christ to the cross.  Decide again it is a journey chosen.  Meditate on what it means to follow.  Look not at others who travel the road, but inward to see what it is that drives the heart.  Whatever it takes to move deeper into life in Christ, choose to do it.  Find yourself to be one of those who comes to the celebration of the empty tomb knowing that the heart has been emptied of all those things which hinder the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.  Know the joy on that day of room being made for the living Christ to dwell. 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Branch

Transcendent moments happen midst the ordinary.  I think I will always remember one such ordinary moment that suddenly became holy.  I was out one day picking up limbs from under the pecan trees.  Living midst pecan trees as we do means there is always something to do.  Pecan trees have a way of pruning themselves and those who walk under them are elected to clean up the mess.  I would imagine I have picked up a thousand or so limbs and broken branches over the years, but there was this morning that was different.  As I picked up a small limb, it became more than a fallen piece of wood.  It became a Word from God telling me that even as this limb, if left alone, would eventually disappear and become a part of the earth, so would I. 
Perhaps, it is the proximity to Ash Wednesday and the words, "Remember you are dust and to dust your shall return," that made this stored away memory fresh once again.   As I held the limb and heard the Word being whispered in my heart, I knew I was standing on ground that had seemed ordinary, but was now holy.  To some it may seem like a strange Word from God to hear.  After all, we would all rather hear some Word which gives us assurance of a long life, or of a needed blessing, or an answer to prayer.  To be reminded of the certainty of our death is not exactly the kind of moment which most would find uplifting.
Yet, it served me that day and continues to do so as a reminder that my life not only belongs to the God who brought me into being, but that my life is in His hands as surely as the pecan limb was in mine.  None of know the number of our years.  I live with that rule operative in my life as well.  But, what I do know is that I shall be in God's hands all my days and even beyond.  This body of mine will indeed one day return to the dust, but it will have served whatever purpose God had for it.  And when its work is done, the soul God put within me will race on ahead to the eternity God has planned for me and for you. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

Lingering Ashes

This past Ash Wednesday I made my way into a local grocery store in the mid morning hour.  As I was dragging a gallon of milk off the shelf, I saw a not yet thirty woman walking toward me.  What caused me to take a second look was the black smudge on her forehead.  I could not help myself.  I had to speak.  "Looks like you made it to an Ash Wednesday service this morning?"  I was intrigued by the marking of the cross.  Mine always seemed to be more like a smeared black blob that was supposed to be a cross, but the one she wore was neat, had a curled top, and caused me to wonder if the priest had used a rubber stamp rather than his thumb.  When I spoke she broke out in a self conscious smile saying, "I forgot all about it."  So, there we stood for a few moments talking about the power of the moment of receiving the ashes.  It was indeed a holy moment while folks went along pushing their shopping carts.
It always interests me that younger people are drawn toward expressions of religious faith that bear the markings of being ancient and traditional.  Today's folks are supposed to have a fascination with the trendy present.  What she seemed to have discovered is a connection with a form of worship that has been around for centuries.  While some may shy away from the liturgy that seems too rote, others find great spiritual value in stepping into a stream of spiritual expression that has been offered in the worship of God by so many for so long.
My friend, Ron, an Episcopal priest, helped me make this connection back in the days he and I served churches in Vidalia.  He could be most irreverent.  I often remember him saying "Slap on those ashes, tell them they're going to die, and send them home!"  But, no man I have known participated in the rituals of the church with more reverence, wonder, and awe.  Though he is gone from our midst and is a part of that great cloud of heavenly witnesses, I often think about him with a grateful heart during these days.  He helped connect me to spiritual expressions of the past and in doing so strengthened my faith in the present. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Day After

The day after Ash Wednesday has come.  The black ashes that were smeared across our forehead in the form of a cross have been washed away.  We can once again look in the mirror and see ourselves without this dark reminder of our mortality.  Perhaps, we are still afflicted with the remembrance of that sobering dose of reality when ashes touched us and the words announcing our mortality were spoken, "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return," but we know the moment still remembered will soon be a moment forgotten.  We will be able to get back to our harried and hurried living.  We will get back to living as if tomorrow is a certainty.
It is unfortunate and sad we are made that way.  Some things need to be remembered longer.  Remembering for more than a moment might cause us to make some significant changes in the way we live as well as the way we see ourselves.  The things we give up in Lent do not really represent significant change in our life.  Instead, they usually speak of our giving lip service to a change that will have no lasting impact on our life.  The discipline of giving up something for Lent is a far cry from the sacrificial living we see modeled in the Christ as He makes His way from the Mount of Transfiguration to the hill called Calvary. 
Certainly, the cross does not model token sacrifice for us.  It does not even remind us of the things we have decided to sacrifice for Lent.  Giving up things like chocolate, or unworn clothing, or some coins, or television hardly is worthy of comparison.  Instead of giving up trivial and unneeded stuff, maybe writing those Ash Wednesday words down on some cards and placing them in strategic places so that they will be seen throughout the days of Lent would be something which would help us inform our heart about the truly important things of life.  "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ash Wednesday, 2017

Today is Ash Wednesday.  Ash Wednesday is the first day of the Lenten season which carries us toward Easter.  It provides a unique worship opportunity in most liturgically minded churches.  Those who participate in today's service of worship will leave with a black smudge mark on their forehead.  The black smudge will be in the form of a cross.  It is not the wearing of it that is difficult for us, but the being marked.  Standing close enough to see the eye balls of the clergy marking us, we will clearly hear the most unusual words spoken to us in all the Sundays of going to worship.  "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."   No, "Good evening, how are you?"  None of that.  Just a word telling us we are going to die.
What is the point?  What is this all about?  Is it not true that worship is supposed to make us feel better?  How can we feel better if someone looks us in the eyes, marks us with a smudged cross, and tells us we are going to die?  For some it is too much.  It is depressing.  It is too much reality.  Many just stay away.  Who wants to hear such a word?  Who really needs to be told they are going to die? 
The truth is we all do.  We live as if life is unending.  We live as if tomorrow is a guarantee.  Living with such a premise underneath us gives us permission to live as we are not permitted to live if we take seriously the truth that life is both fragile and measureable.  A walk through any cemetery should be reminder enough that our stay on this earth is not measured in forever and ever, but in days and years.   At least once a year it is a good thing for someone to speak this truth to us for most of the time, we are far too careless with the days allotted to us.  So hear it still once more.  "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."