Lenten Devotional: Tuesday, March 20

by Robert Foster

Isaiah 31:1: Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, seeking salvation from horses and putting their trust in numbers of chariots, and riders because they are very strong.  But they have not looked for salvation from the Holy One of Israel and they have not sought the LORD.              

Around the same time that we learned that our focus during this Lenten season at Oconee Street UMC would be on listening, I received a request to write a little piece on the importance of contemplative prayer in the work of racial justice and reconciliation.  I have been contemplating that assignment ever since and have finally had some space to write on the subject this week.

To me, contemplative prayer differs from my regular praying in that, in my regular praying, I tell God about things going on in my life and world and how I wish God would act in each of these circumstances.  Contemplative prayer seems to me to reverse this process.  In contemplative prayer I listen to what God seems to be telling me in Scripture or perhaps a line from a song or the content of a recent conversation or news about a recent event, and so on, with a commitment to act on what I hear from God.  And, just as I find it more difficult to listen than to talk in conversations with family and friends, I find it more difficult to hear what God says to me than to tell God what I want and need from God.  Contemplative prayer requires contemplation, slowing down to mull things over, until I finally hear what God has to say to me.

So, even if I have an understanding of contemplative prayer in comparison to my regular prayers, I often do not practice contemplative prayer simply because it takes more time than my regular prayers.  Yet, if I am honest, maybe the major reason I do not engage contemplative prayer more regularly is because in contemplative prayer I am more likely to hear God’s demands of me.  Emilie Griffin, in her wonderful little book on prayer entitled, Clinging, writes that many of us should admit that a major reason we do not pray, period, is because we have heard stories of someone who was “just praying” and suddenly found themselves selling their home and moving to Madagascar to follow the call of God on their lives.  If this can happen during regular prayer, how much more dangerous might contemplative prayer be?!  In contemplative prayer I commit myself to listen and then to act on what I hear from God.  I can hardly imagine a more foolish act in the known universe.

Which brings me back to Isaiah 31:1.  At first glance, maybe God’s simply upset that the people of God seek help from mere mortal like the Egyptians not giving due respect to God.  Is the Creator of the Universe and Redeemer of Israel not enough for you?  Seriously?  But, as we keep reading in the following verses, the prophet takes this passage in a different direction.  After reaffirming that the people should turn to God instead of consulting Egypt—or idols of silver and gold (Isa. 31:6-7)—the prophet proclaims a word of assurance:

Behold, a king will reign with social justice and princes will judge uprightly.  Every one of them will be like a refuge from the wind and a shelter from the storm….And the work of the just will be peace…and my people will dwell in peaceful homes and in secure dwellings and in untroubled places of rest.  – Isaiah 32:1, 2, 17, 18

According to the prophet Isaiah, the downfall of Israel did not the result from the formation of bad political alliances.  No, real problem that precipitated the exile of Israel was that God had hoped to find in Israel justice in the courts and, instead, God found injusticer justice in the streets and, instead, found iniquity (Isa. 5:7).  The people of Israel did not need better political alliances.  They needed leaders committed to working for justice in all its aspects.

And this is one of the reasons I think contemplative prayer is so important in the work of racial justice and reconciliation: I need God to remind me that the problem does not (solely) lie “out there.”  When I stop to listen for God, contemplate what God might be saying to me in a Scripture from the book of Isaiah or in a line from a song by Kendrick Lamar or in a conversation with my friend Broderick or in the chained bodies of black women and men appearing in the local court system, I often enough will hear God speak to me.  I hear God telling me to stand up for justice.

God challenges my commitment to ongoing work of racial justice and reconciliation.  I hear God telling me, “Go,” use my words, my time, my energy, my monies, my life for the cause of racial justice and reconciliation in the world.  To be fair, I often don’t practice contemplative prayer because not because I find it difficult to comprehend or that it takes more time; I simply don’t want God to confront me with my  need to change.  I would rather just cast aspersions on those people “out there” for their failures in racial justice and reconciliation.

Prayer: Dear LORD, Holy One of Israel, give me courage to stop speaking and, once again, to listen.  Tell me what you want me to know, what you would have me to do.  Speak, O LORD, for your servant is listening. 

Lenten Devotional: Monday, March 19

by Robin Whetstone

What Is the Point?

A tour guide told me recently that John Wesley was run out of Savannah for writing down everyone’s sins in a big book he carried around with him everywhere. (This same tour guide also said, “Who’s he?” when I pointed out Flannery O’Connor’s house, so.) A major point to being a Christian for Methodists, and for a lot of Calvinists I’ve not had beers with, is personal holiness.

The liberation theologians in UF’s religion department believed that justice was the point of Christianity. Christianity upends oppression and unjust power structures. People who identify most with this aspect of Christianity say things like “It was only when King started talking about class that they shot him, you know.”

Russians and Catholics focus on Christ’s suffering, because Russians and Catholics are always suffering. Pain is a big part of life, and Mary and Jesus help you bear it. A lot of white Americans think God is an ATM.

Lately, I think a lot about the fruits of the spirit and my own experience, and I think that Christianity does something to your heart. Inoculates it from fear? I don’t know. It transforms it, definitely, but not for your benefit. It doesn’t make things easier. I sometimes think the point of Christianity is that it makes you able to do the things you must do for others, whatever those things may be. Is this what it means to be holy? Is this what it takes to do justice?

This is why I love Lent. Lent gives me space to ask bigger questions than “should I eat this?” Giving up or taking on something makes me stop and ask, for what? What is the point of being a Christian?

The smartest people I trust the most answer, “glorifying the creator.” They don’t specify what that means. Maybe figuring out through prayer, listening, ritual, and asking questions how each of us glorifies the creator is the point of Christianity? I’m seriously asking.

Would anyone be up for a Sunday school class on this topic? I could host a class called “What’s the Point?” It could be followed by a second class (probably led by my husband, har har) called “Why Does There Always Have to Be a Point?” We could also consider another Renovare class, which talks about areas of spiritual focus and growth. Anyone?

Happy Lent, everybody.

Galatians 5:22-23 (NIV): But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 

Lenten Devotional: Saturday, March 17

by Shannon Mayfield

Isaiah 58: 3-10:
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
 Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, 
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.”

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

 A Theology that Works

Guy Clark wrote the song “Stuff That Works” about uncelebrated things in his life: an old blue shirt, an out of tune guitar, a pair of boots that fit just right, a used car that runs like a top. These, he said, constituted stuff that works. “Stuff that holds up. The kind of stuff you don’t hang on a wall. Stuff that’s real, stuff you feel, the kind of stuff you reach for when you fall.”

Unremarkable and old and used. No cache. The kind of things anyone can have. Yet they stand in sharp contrast to new and showy things which, frustratingly, often do not work and do not hold up.

The people of Jerusalem worshipped and fasted in showy ways, practicing the kind of faith they could “hang on a wall,” for all to see. And they despaired that it did not impress God. In Isaiah 58, God pulls out the theological equivalent of Guy Clark’s list. Well worn. Time tested. Still effective.

These powerful verses point us, I think, toward the conception of a God who is not moved by pious displays. They tend to hit a little close to home as we labor over our lent commitments.

The ancient Israelites wondered why God was unimpressed as they fasted and wore ash. God seems to wonder why they bother with the form if the substance is so lacking. Why fast if only to justify yelling at one’s kids? Why smudge ash when simultaneously oppressing one’s employees. It’s all show and no go.

God spells it out for them, and us, in words that deserve always to be shouted or sung:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

A theology that works for us, in other words, is a theology that works on behalf of others. God does not wish for us to heap misery upon ourselves, but rather to alleviate the misery of those who can’t avoid it. Break the chains, free the oppressed, feed the hungry, open our homes to the homeless.

That, God says, is the stuff that works. Kind of old and threadbare as theology goes. It hasn’t been new and shiny for a very long time. It doesn’t get us noticed in the fancy places. But it just happens to catch the attention of the one we seek.

“Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”

Stuff that works.

Prayer: Loving God, as we Christians use this season to develop skills to help us turn away from ourselves, let us remember that these are means and not ends. Let us approach them as exercises which build the muscle we need to break chains that oppress. Let fasting shrink our stomachs so that we might be satisfied with half a loaf and happy to share the other half. Let us rejoice that we worship a God who calls us not to suffer but to work joyfully to heal and reconcile. Thank you, God, for showing us through Oconee Street, a theology that works.

Lenten Devotional: Friday, March 16

by Joe Dennis

Psalms 27:4: One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.


The view outside my office window. Do you see the flower?

“Wow. That is so cool that you have your own flower blooming just for you,” one of my advanced writing students said as she walked into my office.

“What are you talking about?” I asked

“Out your window. You haven’t seen it?” she said as she pointed out my office window.

“Oh. Wow. Yeah. That is really cool. I love that!” I answered.

Of course, this was the first time I ever recognized that flower, or any flower that blooms outside my window. Honestly, I can’t even remember the last time I looked out that window. My attention has been laser-focused on the 1,000+ unanswered emails on my computer screen, the stacks of papers and tests to grade sitting on my desk, and countless students coming in and out of my office for writing one-on-ones.

I had to lie to my student. We just spent the last class discussing the importance of taking in scenes and environments when conducting in-person interviews or covering events. Journalists have to be the eyes and ears for their readers, and in some cases the nose, hands and taste buds. It’s important that writers recognize the entire scene around them, always observant, like a detective looking for clues. But here I am, failing to recognize the scene around my own office, where I spend several hours each day.

Carla often tells me I have “tunnel vision.” I’m good at reaching the finish line, but bad at recognizing the environment along the way. Although this tunnel vision can serve me well in some situations — such as meeting deadlines or coming through in the clutch — it does impair my ability to recognize God’s beauty around me.

Our church has been focusing on “listening” this Lent. I’ve realized that if I take the time to listen, my sense of hearing will not be the only sense impacted by this practice. Focusing on listening allows my other senses to come alive. As I write this on the bleachers of a baseball field, I feel God’s presence in the gentle, cool breeze interrupting the still air. I smell God’s creation in the freshly cut grass. And I can see God’s miracles as children run around with pure joy.

God has flowers blooming for me, all around me. But one place they’re not growing is in my tunnel. I need to make more conscious efforts to peek outside my tunnel and take in God’s beauty with all my senses.

Prayer: God, you are all around me. Arouse my senses so I can enjoy your beauty. Amen.

Lenten Devotional: Thursday, March 15

by Erin Barger

Matthew 18:1-5: At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

Children are amazing creatures. They are reflections of our best (parents, stay with me here) and often embody qualities that we hope to emulate. Ironically, as children we dream of what we will be when we grow up; little do we know that our best self is, in many ways, the child we are so eager to leave behind. Children live their joy full out, with little to no reserve. They forgive quickly. They trust easily — so easily, in fact, Jesus goes on to warn the audience that hurting a child will not go unnoticed by Him.

The entree for this word from the Lord about children is interesting. Note which question by his disciples led Jesus here: Which of us will have the most power in your future kingdom? When Jesus Christ was on earth his followers had a difficult time understanding what his kingdom was really about. Many were tired of haughty Roman rule and were ready for Jesus to take His kingdom by force. Little by little they learned that His kingdom was not about force but about freedom, even submission. Yes, submission. Is there any word that makes us bristle more than this one?

His disciples were tough students (they remind me of someone … oh, me!). Even as Jesus was preparing for His death they were asking who would be the greatest in the kingdom … who will have the best robe … the biggest crown … the best seat in the heavenly house? When asked about the pecking order in this kingdom He came to establish, He called none other but a little child to the middle of the crowd and answered, “Whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus furthers the point by telling his followers that those who receive the child will have received him as well. What else do we know about Jesus to gather understanding here? We know He came to heal the brokenhearted and give rest to the weary, to set captives free. He exemplified power by laying His life down; teaching His followers of his omnipotence while denying himself and lifting up the powerless.

Christ said that if we were serious about being disciples, we would lift up the powerless as well. And across time and place in our world, who is more vulnerable than the very aged and the young? For this reason, school shootings are especially horrifying, earth-shaking, axis-turning. Elder abuse stands out as a crime against humanity, as well as one against God. It is likely no mistake then, that James defines pure religion as care for orphans and widows.

In our thirst for power (which we’ll often call relevance), it is tempting to connect self-concept to the opinions and perceptions of strangers and acquaintances. They are who we usually dress up for, practice speeches for, and put on our best self to benefit or impress. When planning a party for instance, most guest lists include people who have reciprocal invitations to offer, favors to grant. Christ used this example when he taught what a banquet given by a true disciple would look like. The attendants would be the poor, the disabled, the impaired: the vulnerable and overlooked.

Friends, my own discipleship is severely lacking. I intend, however, to keep walking toward a day when I see the world through the eyes of Christ rather than the eyes of self. I was there once, but it has been a while. It was when I was a child.

Prayer: God, in this season of quiet, move us to be still, grateful for and aware of the children in our lives. Show us your lovingkindness through them. Bring us closer to you through their expression of you. Equip us to train and teach them, and also to enjoy and learn from what they have to teach us. In our social lives, give us your eyes to see the overlooked and under-attended. Move us with compassion to do what Jesus did, and send your Spirit to heal the world through your servants at Oconee Street church.

Lenten Devotional: Wednesday, March 14

by Julie Dotterweich Gunby

Hosea 14:5-7 (ESV):

I will be like the dew to Israel;
he shall blossom like the lily;
he shall take root like the trees of Lebanon;
his shoots shall spread out;
his beauty shall be like the olive,
and his fragrance like Lebanon.
They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow;
they shall flourish like the grain;
they shall blossom like the vine;
their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon.

Screen Shot 2018-03-14 at 7.32.26 AMBeauty like the olive, life, roots, shade, blossoming, flourishing … 

Of course this is what I want for my life.

I want to have real, genuine goods.

I want the patient humility of Father Jimmy Boyle, who with his missing fingers and mild manner celebrated mass for 35 years in not only the L’arche community, but also in the penal-like state institution for adults with developmental disabilities.  

I want the radical faithfulness of my coworker who now patiently tends the daily needs of her husband with early onset Alzheimer’s- the very husband who, when he was well, was cruel, distant, and emotionally manipulative.

I want the frightful courage of families who willingly adopt children from orphanages, knowing full well what the ravages that reactive attachment disorder will bring, and that love cannot heal their children’s wounds.

But, of course, that’s not true.

I don’t want those things.

I *want* to want those goods.

Patient humility, radical faithfulness, frightful courage — these have a beauty that is like the ancient olive tree, a gnarled, wisened beauty that matures over time, and still puts forth fruit after hundreds, even thousands of years. A tree that makes fruit both bitter and sweet, that is nourishing for food and for oil for anointing.

These kinds of deep, other-worldly goods are not what I actually want.

These are not what I rush through my work to get to.

No, what I want, at the end of the day, is another glass of red wine, a chance to binge watch some Netflix, a gushing word of praise about my own virtue, a clever thrift store find, a donut, a nap, a flash of self-righteous indignation.

The goods that I actually want are the moral equivalents of candy corn. Easy on the tongue, vapid and depleting in the end.

What would it take to cross this chasm, to want the goods I might, on my best days, almost want?

A hint comes a few verses earlier in this prophecy — in that day “we will say no more, ‘our God’ to the work of our hands.” (Hosea 14:3)

In these weeks of Lent, we have a brief chance to deny ourselves some of the trinket goods and vapid pleasures we make for our own enjoyment.

In so doing, we ask that God might give us a taste for olive oil, whole grain, and the fruit of the vine.

Real goods are an acquired taste.

We cannot force ourselves to enjoy them as good any more than a child can come from the womb craving spicy paneer bhurji.

We cannot cultivate a taste for mature beatitude any more than an orphan can force herself to form attachments after years of abandonment.

But here Hosea is right too– the promise of goodness is possible because Israel is known and loved by “the One in whom the orphan finds mercy.” (14:3)

Perhaps I must begin not by imagining myself as the adoptive mother who holds radical space to bring new life, but as the broken child tied to the bed, with knowledge of nothing but her own desire.

Oh God, we ask that you continue to tirelessly mother us,
   to set before us a table rich with Your food.
Bear with us when we can do no more than choke down tiny bites
   and reach for desserts of our own making.
Love us with patient, radical, frightful courage,
   forgive us when we fight you off and spit it back.
May we, in the end, return and “dwell beneath your shadow,
   flourish like the grain, and blossom like the vine.”

Lenten Devotional: Tuesday, March 13

by Nevena Martin

2 Corinthians 5:7: For we walk by faith, not by sight.

Much like my middle child, I’m an emotional person. Lots of big, full-forced feelings bounce around my heart and soul all the live-long day. It’s super fun … Maybe you’re like me in your emotional life. Or, maybe you’re more like my husband, James — steady, even as the storm rolls on around him. Perhaps, though, you’re not like either of us and fall somewhere else along the emotional spectrum.

For almost the entirety of my life I’ve judged myself for being so emotional. I’ve yearned to be more like James. I’ve wanted to feel in control of the visceral feelings which, at times, dictate my thoughts, actions and mood. While it can be exhausting to parent a child with lots of hot and cold switches, it is, from my experience, even more difficult to live with those buttons adhered to your insides, ready for the world to push them at any moment.

Like any self-aware person with amazing health insurance, I have happily marched myself into therapy for years to mull over and sort through and observe my many states of mind. During a recent session, we focused on anger.  Anger is a tough emotion; if done wrong, it can be a forceful traffic light, a drunken GPS sending you down the wrong route.

You see, the night of Nov. 8, 2016 is one that will live in infamy within my soul. That night is the one which broke my back, it cracked my heart and soul wide open, and I finally became the messy puddle I had been trying my best to hold back for years. As my neighbors shot their pistols in the air in celebration of a madman being elected, I lay sobbing on my floor, my anger having turned inward and my faith in humanity pouring out. For weeks afterwards, I walked around with swollen eyes who leaked at any provocation, small or large. It would take several months to get the diagnosis of depression and a prescription to help realign the neurotransmitters in my brain. I’m grateful to have found respite and healing in those glorious SSRIs and in the support of friends and family with whom I shared my journey.

Like many who suffer, until now I’ve kept it a fairly-private struggle. It seems like a heavy burden to share, and it’s also hard to know who to trust with something so fragile when you feel so vulnerable. During this dark time, I did find the strength to search for a church – I first heard of Oconee Street at an activist meeting where someone mentioned those in the community working towards helping our undocumented brothers and sisters. A month later, I saw an advertisement for an upcoming Christmas pageant at Oconee Street and decided to check it out. Y’all got your hook in me that night – what an amazing pageant that was. I want to thank y’all for being the community I needed to start walking back towards the light.

I’m happy to report that after nearly a year, I’ve weaned myself off medications and feel better. The issue now is that I no longer have a nice, warm, thick quilt insulating me from the world – my emotions are back to full strength, and the world is as it ever was. That’s how I came to be sitting across from my therapist, discussing anger. Anger is a difficult emotion because it’s a secondary response to fear, frustration, hurt and hopelessness. It is also a necessary emotion that serves us well if utilized correctly.  Without a black man, in his righteous anger, sitting at a lunch counter he was banned from; without a black woman, in her righteous anger, refusing to stand up on a bus, I’m not sure how the Civil Rights Era would have turned out. Righteous anger, tempered with nonviolence. Sounds pretty Jesus-y, yes?

When I’m feeling acutely-judgey about myself and all my emotions, I find solace when I look to Jesus. He, too, was a person full of feelings. As G. Walter Hansen so eloquently wrote,

“The gospel writers paint their portraits of Jesus using a kaleidoscope of brilliant “emotional” colors. Jesus felt compassion; he was angry, indignant, and consumed with zeal; he was troubled, greatly distressed, very sorrowful, depressed, deeply moved, and grieved; he sighed; he wept and sobbed; he groaned; he was in agony; he was surprised and amazed; he rejoiced very greatly and was full of joy; he greatly desired, and he loved.

In our quest to be like Jesus we often overlook his emotions. Jesus reveals what it means to be fully human and made in the image of God. His emotions reflect the image of God without any deficiency or distortion. When we compare our own emotional lives to his, we become aware of our need for a transformation of our emotions so that we can be fully human, as he is.”

During this time of listening and turning away from that which distracts us, I want to urge you refine those things about yourself which catch on life’s hardships like a hangnail. Refine, transform, not eliminate. My buttons will always be there, but my reactions can be worked on. If I, rather than using my ego as my guide, use Jesus as a model for navigating my emotional landscape, then my emotions won’t be (wholly) in charge of me. If I can walk by faith rather than by sight, if the world pushes my buttons and I respond by looking to God rather than to my ego, then I feel like I’ll be well on my way to shaking hands, laughing, with the savior true.

Prayer: (lyrics from “No Hard Feelings” by The Avett Brothers)

When the sun hangs low in the west
And the light in my chest
Won’t be kept held at bay any longer
When the jealousy fades away
And it’s ash and dust for cash and lust
And it’s just hallelujah
And love in thoughts and love in the words
Love in the songs they sing in the church
And no hard feelings

Lord knows they haven’t done
Much good for anyone
Kept me afraid and cold
With so much to have and hold

Under the curving sky
I’m finally learning why
It matters for me and you
To say it and mean it too
For life and its loveliness
And all of its ugliness
Good as it’s been to me
I have no enemies
I have no enemies
I have no enemies
I have no enemies

Lenten Devotional: Monday, March 12

by Benjamin Whetstone

2 Corinthians 12:9: But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

Picture1Our family took a long car ride recently. Halfway through the ride, the kids did what they always do when there’s nothing else to do: they asked for a story.

I’m not great at making up stories out of thin air, so I told them basically the entire story of Frodo the hobbit from the Lord of the Rings books, which I read when I was a kid and know pretty well.

It’s been years since I’ve read the books, so lots of plot details that I couldn’t quite remember were omitted. Other parts were accidentally mangled, mixed up and split apart. Even so, I delighted to tell them of my favorite parts: the really cool wizard; the not exactly snuggly elves; the diminutive and courageous hero.

What do you think — Did I tell them the same story I read when I was a kid or a different one? How important is it that I told them every detail exactly as it was first written down? What’s essential to the story? What could be left out, story intact? Could I have omitted parts I didn’t like? Change the characters’ names or motivations?

I’ve been at Oconee Street for about a year. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that many of us find ourselves here because there are some differences between how we tell the Christian story and how other Christians tell it. For that matter, there’s quite a bit of variation in how each of us would talk about what, exactly, is the essential Christian story that brings us to the church-house each Sunday.

Though we might hope that hearing someone else’s take would elicit a feeling of unity, it’s not infrequent that the versions we hear sound lifeless, disorienting or offensive.

I’ve got lots of thoughts on the matter, but I don’t know how to reconcile all the voices. I really don’t.

But I’m convinced of this:

As I told my kids about the miraculous, unexpected, last-minute grace the protagonist is shown in the final scene — when his virtue isn’t sufficient to carry out the task — I really felt like I was giving them a true, if very much abbreviated, version of the story.

We can’t do it alone.

And God loves to help the humble.

Prayer: Dear Jesus, I’m guilty of thinking I’m smart enough and strong enough to not need you all that much. And sometimes I consider my contempt for others justified because they’re wrong and I’m right. I’m so sorry. If I fail to lower myself down, please do what you must to remove any pride that would prevent your kingdom from coming.

Lenten Devotional: Saturday, March 10

by Joe Gunby

John 5:4: “Abide in me.”

“Take ‘er easy, Dude. I know that you will.”
“Yeah, well…the Dude abides.”

If we’re willing to go there, I think we find might something useful about what it means to abide in the movie called The Big Lebowski. It opens in a brightly lit supermarket as a man shuffles down the aisles to the refrigerator case, as the voice-over intones:

Sometimes there’s a man, I’m not saying a hero—cause … what’s a hero? But, sometimes there’s a man, who, well, he’s the man for his time and place, he fits right in there.

Right off, we know that this is different than the numerous movies that tell the central conflict as an obstacle that must be overcome by someone who possesses heroic qualities — or at least who comes to exercise fortitude in the midst of difficult circumstances. In the Hollywood version of the world, heroism is necessary because the threat of evil permeates the world. Goodness is defined over-against some more basic badness. Have you ever wondered how the “good guys” in movies could be so violent? From John Wayne to Jason Bourne, we’ve been taught that in order to be good, heroes have to encounter evil on its own terms and in a way, be better than the “bad guys” at using violence to achieve your goals.

But not the Dude (the main character in The Big Lebowski). While he runs into a lot of bad situations, he never marshals virtues or resources out of his own strength to meet those circumstances, because, as we’ve been told, he’s no hero. Not only is he no hero …

… he is quite possibly the laziest man in Los Angeles County, which would place him high on the list for laziest all time.

Now, while laziness is certainly no Christian virtue, there is something in the Dude’s resistance to heroism that is similar to the easygoing assurance of what the gospel of John calls “abiding.”

In the story the gospel tells, it’s goodness that is basic, and badness is like a limb detached from it. The gospel promises us that what we need to be good is to be attached to the very source of life, not try to make things right ourselves.

What a relief to hear that we don’t have to marshal the courage to face one more round of chemotherapy through our own strength. How refreshing that we don’t have to keep up appearances when a member of the family gets put in jail or goes into rehab (again). If we remain in the source of our life, we can have peace in the midst of brokenness and pain. The image of the vine and the branches assures us that what brings life and joy is not something that we produce, but is something that comes through abiding in Jesus.  

4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.

Our lives produce good things because we are intimately connected with the life of God, which flows through us when we abide. I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that.

Prayer: Gentle Jesus, even when you were sweating bullets, you refused to bend the world to your will. Help me to abide in you as I learn to pray: “Not my will, but yours.”

Lenten Devotional: Friday, March 9

by Colleen Pruitt

Hebrews 12:1-2: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, look unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

I was late to the game in discovering Barbara Brown Taylor, so I have done what only made perfect sense to me at the time: I began been binge reading her books.  I turned page after page, at great speed, in hopes of devouring her wisdom as quickly as possible.  Imagine my surprise when her very words stopped me dead in my tracks and turned my little world upside down.

In “Leaving Church,” Taylor recounts her journey of faith. She tells the story of a friend coming to visit her after leaving the hustle and bustle of her big church in Atlanta to serve as pastor of a small church in Clarkesville. The friend, unfamiliar with the rural back roads, becomes lost and begins speeding her way through small towns in hopes of finding her way.  No surprise, she gets pulled over by a police officer and immediately apologizes and explains her predicament.  He replies, “Well, I’m sorry about that too ma’am,” while writing her citation, “but what made you think that hurrying would help you find your way?”

Wait, what?  You mean to tell me that hurrying through my life is not getting me where I want to go?  How can this be? I have spent most of my adult life believing that faster meant better.  What do you mean, hurrying is not the way?

You see, somehow along the way, hurrying had become my main mode of transportation. Hurry the kids to school in the morning.  Hurry through my to-do list at work.  Hurry to do the laundry or take out the trash or [insert any other chore here].  Hurry through conversations with loved one (including my spouse, children and dear friends). Hurry us all to church on Sundays. If I am being entirely honest, I had become consumed by the hurry, by the busy.  I am now (slowly) coming to realize that this relentless pursuit to get things done is not the way.  I have been missing so much in pursuit of the hustle.  Not only that, I have been missing what matters most.  For some time, I have been sprinting towards the wrong thing.

The words we have been singing each Sunday during Lent, “Come and rest, Come and listen,” have become my new rally cry. I don’t want to miss any more moments. I want to run patiently in the right direction.  I want to make time to truly listen to God so that I can be the person he has called me to be. How silly and lost I had become to think that God cared about my efficiency and productivity? God cares about my heart, not my check list.

The Bible calls us to “run with endurance.” I have read this passage from Hebrews again and again searching for any mention or reference to speed.  I cannot find any.  How many times have I been told life is a marathon, not a sprint?  When will I start actually believing it? As I read and reread this passage, I am slowly starting to hear what God is trying say to me.  I am to run with endurance while looking to Him.  So during this Lenten season, this is the very thing I am trying to do. To focus my eyes on Jesus — in my hurry, I have missed a great deal of time with him, too — and run my own race with perseverance and patience. I hope this for us all.

Prayer: Dear loving God, please help me to remember to breathe. Please help me to stop and pause.  Please help me to slow down and resist hurry. Please help me to notice and delight in your wonder.  Please help me to focus on my own race and help me gain the endurance to stay the course. Please see my heart and help me to be the person you have called me to me. Amen