One of God’s most effective transformation tools is a season of waiting. In fact, it seems that God delights in imposing a time of waiting as preparation for those He intends to use. Joseph sat in a dark prison cell for ten years before being called out to interpret Pharaoh’s dream. Moses wandered the desert carry for sheep for forty years before God used him to lead his people out of bondage in Egypt. David hid deep in the wilderness from Saul for seven years before ascending to the throne to which he had already been anointed. The apostle Paul was led into the Desert of Arabah for three years after his conversion before being sent out on his world-changing mission trips.

One of my fellow EPC pastors, David Henderson, puts it this way: “When we are made to wait, it does not mean God is overlooking something. It means God is overseeing something. Waiting is not a place where God fails us; it is where he meets us.” I not only love that thought, I lean into every day! Scripture invites us to “wait for the Lord,” but what does that mean? Surely God intends for it to be something more than knotted-up, anxious, calendar-waiting impatience. A better translation of “wait for the Lord” in places like Psalm 27:14, might be “wait on the Lord.”

We wait ON the Lord when we seek Him, enter into conversation with Him about whatever we are facing, and invite Him to direct our waiting. In seeking Him, we turn our attention away from the clock and calendar and toward God and the fulfillment of His purpose as time passes. We wait ON the Lord when we yield to Him and surrender our need for control to Him. It means shifting from “I decide” to “you decide,” from “I’m in charge of the blueprint of my life,” to “You are the architect and master-builder of my life.”

I’ve use the same holy heart repetition from Psalm 46:10 for years when I enter into a time of silence and solitude or Lectio Divina. “Be still, and know that I am God.” To “be still” is more literally translated as “loosen your grip.” It is the same verb used in Deuteronomy 31:6 when it says, “The LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake – loosen his grip on – you.

I can let go of everything else because God is clinging to me. What about you?

 

This morning’s Lenten devotional was a familiar story: Jesus quiets a storm while crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat with his disciples. What makes this story so remarkable is that Jesus exercises his dominion over the forces of nature, even when the disciples in the boat with him demonstrate little faith. I find myself sympathetic to the disciples plight. I’ve heard this passage preached more times then I can count. The common takeaway generally goes something like this: Jesus calms the storms of life. This morning I find myself wanting to argue with this conclusion.

My experience is that not many storms in life are calmed, even in response to faithful and fervent prayer. Family after family in my faith community are in the midst of raging storms and there is no evidence of calm on the horizon. News pours in to the west about the famine in South Sudan and other parts of Africa. Flooding and mudslides killed dozens yesterday in Peru. A small city of refugees is trapped in the desert between Syria and Jordan. Violence and social injustice are systemic throughout the so-called developed world. So what are we to make of this story?

It is clear that Jesus calms the storm in spite of the disciples’ weak faith. In that way, Jesus’ calming the storm is an offering of grace. Grace is God’s movement in our lives at HIs initiative, not a response to our level of faith. As Creator and Sustainer Perhaps this is not just a story of Jesus’ power over nature, but it is a story of God’s essential nature, freely given to God’s people, apart from any merit on the receiver’s part.

I think the passage also makes clear that Jesus is with us as we live with life’s storms. is makes all the difference. It is God’s presence that saves us, transforming the storm and giving us the strength and courage to grieve, to move ahead, to rebuild, to live in hope.

The season of Lent calls us to times of personal reflection. What have been the storms in our lives? Have we been aware of God’s presence during those times? What difference has that made? As we move into closer communion with God through times of quiet and prayer, we can learn to be open not only to the presence of God, but also to receiving the gi of God’s abundant grace in all circumstances.

 

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.” When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. 4 He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,

        by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,

            because from you will come one who governs,

            who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Matthew 2:1-6 CEB

I had just sat down at my desk with a personally-crafted double shot, non-fat latte in my hand. My desk was finally free from holiday clutter.  My Hearth and Hand Leather and Tobacco candle had filled my office with its glorious scent. I was enjoying some delicious silence as I sermonized for Epiphany Sunday when it happened. My iPhone, iPad and iMac began to vibrate, buzz and ring as a call came across wifi to all three devices simultaneously. It was a cacophony of noise – evil enough on its own – made worse by being from an unfamiliar number. I quickly muted each device and turned my attention back to my studies. A minute later, all three devices again began to vibrate, buzz and ring again and from the identical unfamiliar number. I muted them again, put my phone in do-not-disturb mode but by then, it was too late. I had been disturbed and I don’t like being disturbed, especially when I have created an environment perfectly suited for quiet sermonizing. 

It was at that precise moment, my when my eyes focused on the third verse of the appointed Gospel text for Epiphany quoted above: When King Herod heard this, he was troubled/disturbed and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled/disturbed with him. 

Why exactly, was Herod disturbed? I mean I get it, Herod was a deeply suspicious, troubled and fatally-flawed man, but what was it about these Magi and their search for the newborn king of the Jews along with his chief priests’ and legal experts’ quotation from the prophet Micah, that caused him to be disturbed enough to seek a second, secret meeting with these exotic Easterners?  Some further reflection on a passing exegetic comment in my notes led to an epiphany of my own.

I believe that Herod’s original troubled spirit was further agitated by the quotation, or shall I say partial quotation of the prophet Micah, by his chief priests and legal experts. I am convinced that Herod was deeply familiar with that Messianic prophecy. After all, by all accounts, he was obsessed with any and all, real or perceived threats to his throne.  In fact, he curated the fanciful idea that he, Herod, was the fulfillment of that Messianic prophecy despite his ignoble heritage. Any challenge to that notion was quickly quelled. Their quotation of the first three lines of Micah 5:2 is nearly verbatim with the subtle exception of the the final line. The chief priests and legal experts substituted Micah’s phrase “his origin is from remote times from ancient days”, with “who will shepherd my people Israel.” Shepherding is not associated with political power because shepherding implies compassion, courage and self-sacrificing care, all things that Herod and most other powerful people despise. Herod simply could not think of his kingship in those terms. I suspect that what appears at first blush to be simple misquotation of Micah, was in reality a not-so-subtle challenge to his Messianic complex. His agitation overflowed into a blood-shedding murderous rage that forever labeled him The Butcher of Bethlehem Innocents.

Tending His Flock

“Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock; he will gather lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap. He will gently guide the nursing ewes.” – Isaiah 40:11

Some people say that the God of the First Testament is not as loving as the God of the Second Testament and I can understand why. Yet I think Isaiah’s picture of a loving shepherd describes God in both powerful and yet loving terms. God is like a shepherd who gathers lambs in his arms and holds them close to his heart. Jesus later said he is the kind of shepherd who will not only care fo this sheep, he also will give up his life for them. And that’s exactly what he did by dying on the cross in our place. In the greatest transaction in all of human history, Jesus, the shepherd foretold by Isaiah, took all our sins on himself so that we can be made right with God. 

As sheep, we have to recognize that we have gone astray and continue to do so. The Bible calls this straying sin. Kierkeggard defined sin this way: Sin is not simply doing bad things, but putting good things in the place of God. He goes on to suggest that the only solution is not to change our behavior, but to reorient our hearts and life around God. 

Take a few moments today to reorient yourself around the God who “like a shepherd, will tend the flock” and “gather lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap.”

 

On my most recent trip to Africa, I ask one of my Ugandan friends why he never got angry at all the crazy taxi and boda boda drivers who are constantly cutting in front of us and hugging us out of our place. His response was simple: What will this change?”

A skillful question to be sure. One that finds deep resonance with me. On a practical level, I ask myself that questions every time I prepare a sermon or spiritual lesson. What will this change?

As I prepared the sermon for this past Sunday’s Collective Gathering, I found a deep resonance with Jesus who is speaking far more vociferously with his congregation than I have had to courage to do with mine.  It is difficult to pin down the exact emotions Jesus is expressing, but I don’t think it a stretch to think they have a least a tinge of anger in them.:

Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you. Matthew 11:16-30

And then suddenly he changes direction. Matthew marks the change with a time check, “At that time Jesus said,…” (v. 21) Wouldn’t you love to ask Jesus what triggered the change? Do you think he noticed a change in the people to whom he was speaking? Did he suddenly realize that he was more worked up than he intended to be?

Whatever the reason, Jesus makes an abrupt shift and turns to a prayer of thanks to God for those who are able to hear and receive the message that he offers. Jesus makes it clear that revelation does NOT come to all. It comes only to those who have prepared themselves to receive it. “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” (vv. 28-30)

I love what writer Alice Mackenzie writes about this verse: “To be told we can lay down our burdens sounds so sweet until we realize that, in Jesus’ eyes, many things we view as blessings are actually burdens. To those who view these things as their birthright and most cherished possessions, to be required to divest themselves of them sounds like sacrifice. And it is. But it is on the way to a life of being forgiven, being refreshed, and being empowered to live with the humility, discernment, courage, and compassion of Jesus.”

The proud and the arrogant, those who think they have all the answers, those who view themselves as self-made, will never see what the burdened and heavily laden ones will see and receive. There is something about the pain of living in this fallen world that tills the soil for the fertile seed of Jesus’ words. There is a way of living that lets us lay down old burdens but where those same burdens make and also heal us.

What did these words change?

Perhaps everything.

 

Lectio Divina (translated “divine or sacred reading”) is an approach to the Scriptures that sets us up to listen for the word of God spoken to us in this present moment.  Lectio divina refers to the ancient practice of divine reading that dates back to the early mothers and fathers of the Christian faith. Referring to the material being read and also the method itself, the practice of lectio divina is rooted in the belief that through the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures are indeed alive and active as we engage them for spiritual transformation. (Heb. 4:12)

Lectio involves a slower, more reflective reading of Scripture that helps us to be  open to God’s initiative rather than being subject to human  agendas—our own or someone else’s. Through a delicate balance of silence and word, we enter into the rhythm of speaking and listening which is at the heart of intimate communication. A time of silence before the reading help us to quiet our inner chaos so that we are prepared to listen. Moments of silence throughout the process helps us be attentive to God when he does speak and creates space for noticing our own inner dynamics and exploring them in God’s presence.

Lectio Divina is experienced in four movements. We might think of them as moves rather than steps because it reminds of dancing. When we are learning a new dance, we are very awkward and very concerned about getting it right.  We watch our feet, trying to get them to do what they are supposed to do.  We wonder what to do with our hands.  If we are dancing with a partner, we might be clumsy at first as we try to figure out how to move together gracefully.  But in the end, the point is to be able to enter into the dance, flow with it, improvise, and enjoy the person we are dancing with.

It is the same with lectio divina. When we are just starting out, we concentrate on following the steps and getting everything in the right order. But eventually as we become more comfortable, they become moves in a dance that flows with beauty and pleasure, heart and soul.  The moves become very fluid and flow into one another quite naturally. But first we do have to familiarize ourselves with the basic moves.

Choose a short passage (6-8 verses at most) that is either a part of your normal reading plan, a passage you have chosen for today or a passage from the lectionary reading for this week and enter prayerfully into the lectio process.  Following are very detailed instructions to help you learn the moves. (This approach to Scripture is so old that it was originally presented in Latin.  Although I have chosen English words to describe the process, I have included the Latin words in parenthesis so that the beauty and the nuance of the original language are not lost.)

Preparation (Silencio) Take a moment to come fully into the present moment.  With your eyes closed, let your body relax and allow yourself to become consciously aware of God’s presence with you.  Express your willingness (or your willingness to be made willing) to hear from God in these moments by using a brief prayer such as “Come Lord Jesus,” or “Here I am” or “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Then read the chosen passage four consecutive times, each time asking a slightly different question that invites you into the dynamic of that move.  Each reading is then followed by a brief period of silence:

Read (Lectio): Listen for the word or the phrase that is addressed to you.
Turn to the passage and begin to read slowly, pausing between phrases and sentences.  You may read silently or you might find it helpful to read the passage aloud allowing the words to echo and resonate, sink in and settle into heart.  As you read, listen for the word or phrase that strikes you or catches your attention.  Allow for a moment of silence, repeating that word or phrase softly to yourself, pondering it and savoring it as though pondering the words of loved one.  This is the word that is meant for you.  Be content to listen simply and openly without judging or analyzing.  

Reflect (Meditatio): How is my life touched by this word? Once you have heard the “word” that is meant for you, read the passage again and listen for the way in which this passage connects with your life.  Ask, “What is it in my life right now needs to hear this word?” Allow several moments of silence following this reading and explore thoughts, perceptions, and sensory impressions.  If the passage is a story, perhaps ask yourself the question, Where am I in this scene? What do I hear as I imagine myself in the story or hear these words addressed specifically to me?  How do the dynamics of this story connect with my own life experience?

Respond (Oratio): What is my response to God based on what I have read and encountered? Read the passage one more time listening for your own deepest and truest response. In the moments of silence that follow this reading, allow your prayer to flow spontaneously from your heart as fully and as truly as you can.   At this point you are entering into a personal dialogue with God “sharing with God the feelings the text has aroused in us, feelings such as love, joy, sorrow, anger, repentance, desire, need, conviction, consecration.  We pour out our hearts in complete honesty, especially as the text has probed aspects of our being and doing in the midst of various issues and relationships.” (Robert Mulholland, Invitation to a Journey, p. 114) Pay attention to any sense that God is inviting you to act or respond in some way to the word you have heard.  You might find it helpful to write your prayers or to journal at this point.

Rest (Contemplatio): Rest in the Word of God. In the final reading you are invited to release and return to a place of rest in God. You have given our response its full expression, so now you can move into a time of waiting and resting in God’s presence like the weaned child who leans against its mother.   (Psalm131). This is posture of total yieldedness and abandon to the Great Shepherd of our souls.  

Resolve (Incarnatio): Incarnate (live out) the Word of God As you emerge from this place of personal encounter with God to life in the company of others, resolve to carry this word with us and to live it out in the context of daily life and activity. As you continue to listen to the word throughout the day, you will be led deeper and deeper into its meaning until it begins to live in you and you “enflesh” this Word in the world in which you live.  As a way of supporting your intent to live out the word you have been given, you may want to choose an image or a picture or a symbol that you can carry to remind you of it.
In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from his book Life Together, “The Word of Scripture should never stop sounding in your ears and working in you all day long, just like the words of someone you love. And just as you do not analyze the words of someone you love, but accept them as they are said to you, accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart, as Mary did.  That is all… Do not ask ‘How shall I pass this on? but ‘What does it say to me?’ Then ponder this word long in your heart until it has gone right into you and taken possession of you.”

 

Have you ever noticed the number of questions found in the gospels? We have Zechariah’s request for assurance from the angel Gabriel about the son promised he and Elizabeth, “How will I know that this is so? (Luke 1:18); Mary’s question of Gabriel, “How can these things be?” (Luke 1:34); Thomas asking, “How can we now the way? (John 14:5) and 180 additional questions asked of Jesus.

Would it surprise you then that Jesus is never presented as the answer man in the Gospels? In fact, Jesus asks many more questions than he ever answers – three hundred and seven to be exact. Of all the questions asked of Jesus, he directly answers only three. Imagine that: for every question Jesus answered directly, he asked a hundred!

The famous Gospel Lectionary passage for today from John 3, tells the story of Nicodemus who comes at night with questions for Jesus. He lead with something he knows – “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God” and after listening to Jesus’ answer, has something he needs to know – “How can these things be?” Being born again? Being born of water and spirit? Being born from above? Say what Jesus? It seems as though in the darkness nothing Jesus says makes sense to him.

I’ve been there before and I’d wager that you have too. I’d bet that all of us could tell stories about times and places in our lives where we feel afraid, abandoned and alone – the nighttimes of our lives. The nighttimes of life are difficult places for most of us. It’s not so much the darkness itself but the fear and questions the darkness brings. And just like Nicodemus, we want answers to our questions.

But what if the nighttimes of life are an invitation from God to draw closer to Him? What if they are intended to open us more fully to the Spirit’s work in us? What if there is a light in us that only darkness can illuminate?

 

When I was in elementary school, my family was in church every time the doors were open. That’s a bold statement to make but true none the less. In fact, not only were we there every time the doors were open, we were there even when they were not open – we were the church janitors! Though the church we attended was not particularly liturgical, it did have a structure for the services that included what I came to see as the dreaded “pastoral prayer.” This prayer could extend for ten to twelve minutes as the pastor made his way through the congregational needs and concerns.

As a young boy, I did not have the capacity to sustain long conversations with God. Short prayers before a meal and bedtime were the foundation of my conversations with God. Those early prayers were the first of what Mark Thibodeaux identifies as the four stages of prayer: talking AT God. I suspect that many of us learned to pray in this ritual way: hands folded and head bowed, you recite a memorized prayer taught to you by your parents. My family’s table prayer went like this: “Our Father, thank you for this food, in Jesus’ name, Amen.” The actual words of the prayer were not as important as the ritual expression of thanks for God’s provision. As I’ve grown older, I’ve folded other ritual prayers into my life as a way to unite myself with the millions of Christians over the centuries who have recited the same ritual prayers throughout the day.

As I grew and matured both in age and faith, I became more comfortable finding my own words to speak to God rather than parroting the ones I learned as a young child. In that way, I moved from talking AT God to talking TO God – the second stage in the development of prayer. I would just simply speak to God about whatever was happening in my life and sharing what I needed for Him to do on my behalf. This pattern of prayer – talking AT and TO God – was all I really knew growing up and through my adult life. Then a spiritual mentor led me to see that the mark of a mature person is the ability to really listen. This ability to listen well would also be vital to my spiritual formation and relationship with God. Under his tutelage, I began to understand prayer not as a monologue though which I made God aware of what was happening in my life and where I need Him to intervene, but as a conversation between the two of us. I began to search out ways in which I could create space for me to truly listen to God and thereby have my prayers become a conversation between God and me. That’s the third stage of prayer – listening TO God. I developed the habit of centering prayer and journaling to help me better listen and discern the voice of God.

It wasn’t until a few years ago when I read Richard Rohr’s Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, that I discovered a fourth stage of prayer – being WITH God. Prayer becomes a posture I take before God in which I recognize the sacrament of the present moment and all the possibilities that holds for my relationship with God.

Do I still pray AT God? Absolutely. Do I still pray TO God? Everyday. But without the disciplines of listening to God through dedicated times and simply being with God in a posture of prayer throughout each day, my prayer life would be incomplete.

What about you?

 

I was twelve years old and spending the summer away from the city in upstate New York at my grandmother’s house. I loved the two months of summer we’d spend at Nannie’s – our affectionate name for my maternal grandmother. She had this house that felt like a mansion compared to our tiny place in the city. She also had this huge barn on her property that provided a great play area out of the hot summer-time sun. My sisters and I would play games of hide-and -seek, capture the flag and a myriad of other games for hours on end. If we were lucky, we’d even have a few of our next door neighbors join in.

It was always a challenge to fit in when the neighbors joined the fray. Though I wanted desperately to feel a sense of belonging with these kids, it was always a struggle. I had never accompanied grandpa to milk a cow, feed the chickens or butcher a pig. I had never waited motionless and silent with my dad in the pre-dawn hours to bag a ten-point buck. I was the “city slicker” with no experience on the farm. I didn’t feel as though I belonged.

I’ve since learned that all that is required to fully experience belonging is to believe that we are worthy of belonging. When we can finally let go of what other people think and own our story, we gain access to our own sense of worthiness – the feelings that we are enough just as we have been created by God.

I’ve learned much about love and belonging from writer and research professor Brene Brown. She says, “When we spend a lifetime trying to distance ourselves from the parts of our lives that don’t fit with who we think we’re supposed to be, we stand outside of our story and hustle for our worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing and proving.” I liken that need to perform, perfect, please and prove to climbing on an elliptical, putting your head down, working out hard for forty-five minutes only to be disappointed to discover upon disembarking, that you are in the exact spot you began!

The truth is, worthiness has no prerequisites. We are worthy now, in this moment, in our story, just as we are. We just have to own it. And that might just be the biggest challenge.

 

I was surprised how a passing invitation for my friends in the DFW area to join me at event with tattooist and friend Tristan Bradshaw this morning, generated a viral response – at least viral by my post standards! The event was sponsored by Connecting Things – a group committed to sharing the stories and work of local creatives in our area. I made the off-handed remark that though I don’t wear ink, I was going to support Tristan who’s art is permanently displayed on the skin of so many of my friends. People posted their surprise and consternation on my lack of skin art. My reply was simple enough: out of respect for the preference of my wife to “not cover up any of my beautifulness,” I have chosen not to be inked. I’ll leave the veracity of her description of me to you!

This got me thinking about potential tattoos that my wife and I could get to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. That led me to discover the East Asian legend of the Red String of Marriage. If you’re a fan of Japanese Manga, you’ve likely seen it in series like Kekkaishi, Loveless or Nana. We in the west get the idea of a “pinky swear” from this myth.

According to Chinese legend, the gods tie an invisible red cord around the ankles of those that are destined to meet one another in a certain situation or help each other in a specific way. In Japanese culture, it is thought to be tied around the little finger. In both instances, those connected by the red threads are destined to be lovers, regardless of place, time or circumstance.

As followers of Jesus, both Chris and I believe that Yahweh God destined – dare I say predestined – us to be together long before we ever met. It was no chance meeting between a native Minnesotan and native New Yorker on that campus in Chattanooga, Tennessee. God joined us together that day and began weaving his thread into ours to create “a cord of three strands that is not quickly broken (Ecclesiastes 4:12).

Our thirty years together has proven that marriage takes three: me, my wife and God. It is God who has taught us how to love. It is God who has bound us together through the ups and downs of thirty years of married life and the one who will bind us together for thirty more.

 

“Yes, there is that voice, the voice that speaks from above and from within and that whispers softly or declares loudly: “You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.” I’ll never forget encountering this sentence for the first time in Henri Nouwen’s book Life of the Beloved. It stopped me in my tracks. I wasn’t sure I could believe it about myself – that God would love me like God loved Christ.

“You are my beloved.” Such a simple and yet, such a powerful statement – so easy to say and yet so hard to believe about ourselves, isn’t it? Nouwen goes on to say that the biggest obstacle to knowing God’s love is that we can’t seem to hold on to this simple truth when we are hurt, rejected, abandoned or when we fail.

I’m wondering two things: What might the world look like if we all knew ourselves to be claimed and loved? What might the world look like if we all knew one another as claimed and loved?

I would suggest that when we truly believe this about ourselves – that we are beloved – we can’t help but believe it about others as well. I know that might sound a bit idealistic but isn’t that what Jesus modeled throughout his life and ministry? Didn’t He model a ridiculously expansive grace that even his closest followers wished he would tone down?

I can almost hear some of you now coming back with the “Yes, but” response. “Yes, but Jesus was God.” Yes, but we don’t live in the same kind of world. “Yes but.” “Yes, but.” Yes, but.” Can I suggest that for the remainder of this Lenten journey, we change the “Yes, but” to “What if?”

What if Liberals and Conservatives…

What if African and Anglo Americans…

What if White and Blue Collar workers….

What if Catholic and Protestant Christians…

What if Muslims and Jews…

What if we all began by seeing one another first as beloved?

What if….you fill in the blank.

God breaks into the human story to name and claim and love us. “You are mine. You are beloved.” That’s the beginning of our story. What will be the rest of our story?