OBSERVING LENT – Ash Wednesday 2018

“We have fasted before you!” they say. “Why aren’t you impressed? We have been very hard on ourselves, and you don’t even notice it!”
“I will tell you why!” I respond. “It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves. Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers. What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord?” [Isaiah 58:3-5 (NLT)]

ibis - great egret - corkscrewEvery evening, a man went to the local pub and ordered three beers. When asked why three, he explained that he ordered the two extra beers in honor of his two dear brothers who lived far away. One evening, he ordered only two beers. Assuming the worst, the bartender extended sympathy for the loss of a brother but the man explained that both brothers were fit as fiddles. The beers he’d ordered were for them. “It’s me that’s not drinking tonight,” he added, “You see, I’ve given up beer for Lent!”

Yesterday, I wrote about Jesus being tested in the wilderness. Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, a period of forty days (not counting Sundays) that commemorate those forty days of His fasting and temptation in the desert. Traditionally it is a time to repent, reflect, and prepare for the observance of both Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Some people fast or give up certain habits or behaviors during this season. Others add additional Bible study or prayer time. For those who observe it, Lent becomes a season of self-discipline.

While some denominations observe Lent, many others don’t. Since Lent’s observation isn’t founded in Scripture, the choice to observe Lent really is a personal one. What we must never do is make the mistake of thinking that God will love us more for our Lenten sacrifice or that giving up something like gum, candy, alcohol, meat or television has any bearing on our salvation. Jesus took care of our salvation on the cross and God’s love could never be greater than it is right now. No amount of sacrifice can earn God’s free gift of grace.

Although Jesus fasted, he never commanded us to do so. His words on fasting tend to focus on people’s hypocrisy when fasting—they often fasted to impress people with their holiness rather than grow closer to God. Self-sacrifice is not to be done ostentatiously but humbly, quietly, and privately. However we choose to observe Lent, unlike the man at the bar, it should be done sincerely. God sees into our hearts and knows when we’re repentant and genuinely seeking Him or just going through the motions!

No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. [Isaiah 58:6-7 (NLT)]

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THY WILL BE DONE

Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. [Matthew 6:10b (RSV)]

zinniaIn our house, we have an unwritten agreement to accept each other’s choices when it comes to giving. God had laid it on my heart to help a young family in our church through some difficult financial times. When I told my husband I’d written a generous check to them, he said I didn’t need to ask him. “I wasn’t asking,” I replied, adding that I hoped he was in agreement with me. Although that check was not dependent upon my husband’s authorization or approval, I still wanted him on board with my decision to write it.

I thought of our exchange while praying, “Thy will be done.” I’d mistakenly thought I was merely consenting to or accepting God’s will with those words. God, however, certainly doesn’t need my agreement for His will to be done any more than I needed my husband’s permission to write that check. God is all-powerful and whatever He wants to do, He easily can do without my prayers, input or approval. Why then then did Jesus tell us to pray those words?

“Thy will be done”—are they simply words of resignation and surrender? While that sentence is one of humble submission, I think there is much more to it. We’re asking God to reveal His will and praying for the obedience, wisdom, guidance, and means to accomplish it. We’re asking God to reassure us so that we can trust Him and go about achieving His purpose in eagerness and joy. We’re not offering a prayer to authorize or strengthen Him; we’re praying that He will strengthen and empower us. With those words, we’re thanking God for knowing what is best for each and every one of us.

In our daily walk, we have a choice. God can drag us along (much I had to drag the dog into the vet’s office) or we can eagerly follow Him. Either way, whether we’re kicking and screaming or moving enthusiastically, God’s will shall be done. Nevertheless, in praying, “Thy will be done,” we fully commit our hearts to that will. It’s saying, “Here I am, Lord. Put on my armor, send me into battle and keep me strong in the enemy’s attack!” Heavenly Father, thy will be done!

Prayer is not so much the means whereby God’s will is bent to man’s desires, as it is that whereby man’s will is bent to God’s desires. [Charles Bent]

And he said to all, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” [Luke 9:23 (RSV)]

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GIVING THANKS

Make thankfulness your sacrifice to God, and keep the vows you made to the Most High. … But giving thanks is a sacrifice that truly honors me. If you keep to my path, I will reveal to you the salvation of God. [Psalm 50:14,23 (NLT)]

It’s one thing to be grateful. It’s another to give thanks. Gratitude is what you feel. Thanksgiving is what you do. [Tim Keller]

Black-crowned night heronYesterday I happened upon a wood stork enjoying a fish breakfast. I was astonished as the stork swallowed the whole wriggling fish in one big gulp. “I’ll have to put that in my gratitude journal,” I thought as I walked on. Later, I spotted two woodpeckers hammering away at a tree and got up close and personal with a pond snail laying eggs. Two more for the journal, I thought. Did I put those little blessings in my journal last night? Shamefully, I forgot to write in it at all; worse, I totally forgot about them in my nightly prayers!

When I look back at the rest of yesterday, all sorts of wonderful little things happened for which I was grateful and yet failed to thank God. Without having one red light, I got to an appointment with time enough to take a short walk on the beach. I’m not self-centered enough to think God turned all those lights green just for me; nevertheless, my day went better because of it and it deserved thanks. I met a delightful young couple at cooking class. Did God put them there just for me? I don’t know, but I was thankful to have them as cooking partners for the afternoon. There was a beautiful cooling breeze and the sunset was magnificent. Did God arrange the weather to my wishes? I doubt it, but I should have told Him how much I appreciated it! I was remiss in acknowledging God’s presence or thanking him for the day’s numerous small blessings.

Today, I set out again and spotted a black-crowned night heron hiding in the bushes. While getting a photo, I thought, “I’ll have to put that in my gratitude journal.” This time, however, that small voice reminded me how lackadaisical I’ve gotten with my journal and asked me why I was waiting to thank the creator of all those beautiful moments. That gave me pause. If I’d been walking with someone else, I would have shared those sightings. Although I wasn’t walking with another person, I was walking with God. Why wasn’t I talking to Him? Why wasn’t I sharing my joy with the one who gave it to me? God was right beside me and He shouldn’t have to wait until I get around to thanking him or writing in my journal, especially since I’m not good about remembering to do so. Thanks should be speedy and sincere.

We thank God through our prayer. We don’t need church, a table blessing or a gratitude journal to do so. We certainly don’t need to wait until our regular prayer time to offer thanks and, most especially, we shouldn’t wait until November for Thanksgiving Day! Our whole day, every day, should consist of a prayer of thanksgiving. God is with us as we take our daily walk; let us remember to thank him for the joy we find along with way.

We need to discover all over again that worship is natural to the Christian, as it was to the godly Israelites who wrote the psalms, and that the habit of celebrating the greatness and graciousness of God yields an endless flow of thankfulness, joy, and zeal. [J.I. Packer]

And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. [Ephesians 5:20 (NLT)]

 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever. [1 Chronicles 16:34 (NLT)]

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MAKE IT PERSONAL

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39 NLT

white peacock butterflyI recently read a devotion that suggested substituting our own personal anxieties and concerns for the troubles listed by Paul in Romans 8. Perhaps your version would read: “And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither old age nor loss of loved ones, neither cancer nor dementia, neither our fears for our wayward children nor our worries about finances—not even the powers of terrorism and hate can separate us from God’s love. No hurricanes or earthquakes—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Then again, maybe widowhood, heart disease, migraines, foreclosure, floods, stroke, bullies, loneliness, crime, hunger, depression, fires, hard times, debt, anger, betrayal, homelessness, violence, or tornadoes would be on your list. However you fill in the blanks, Paul’s words remain true and bear repeating. Nothing—absolutely nothing—can separate us from God’s love as shown in Jesus Christ.

That God is for us, however, doesn’t mean we have no enemies. In fact, Paul’s words were written to the Roman church, a church that underwent tremendous persecution for the following 300 years. We encounter threats from both physical and spiritual enemies daily. What it does mean is that those enemies, no matter how powerful they are, can’t turn God against us. Because God gave His only son to save us, we can be sure, not just of his unchanging and everlasting love, but of our salvation.

What troubles would you substitute for Paul’s in Romans 8? No matter what they are, rest assured in the promise that the battle is already over and overwhelming victory is ours through Christ our Lord!

What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? … overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. [Romans 8: 31b-32,37b (NLT)]

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WATCH OVER ME

The Lord himself watches over you! The Lord stands beside you as your protective shade. The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon at night. The Lord keeps you from all harm and watches over your life. The Lord keeps watch over you as you come and go, both now and forever. [Psalm 121:5-8 (NLT)]

mute swansIn his Small Catechism, Martin Luther instructs people to say the following prayer as soon they get out of bed: “God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit watch over me. Amen.” When I watch my grands, it’s not just keeping the baby dry and fed, getting the toddler to use the potty and take his nap, getting the kids to school, preparing their lunch, or making sure that homework gets done. Watching over them is more than just supervising them and keeping them from destroying the house. It means protecting them—from dangerous objects, people, and activities. It’s keeping them from getting hurt or hurting anyone else. Sometimes it means stopping them in their tracks and other times it’s removing something from their reach. Watching them is wiping their tears, laughing at their jokes, and kissing their ouchies; yet, it is still more. It is leading by example, introducing them to new things, encouraging them and challenging them to become stronger and better. It is walking and talking with them and opening their eyes to the world around them. It is correcting, helping, comforting, loving, teaching and nurturing them.

Thinking of what it means to watch my grands, Luther’s short prayer packs a giant request into a few short words. Guide me, convict me, protect me from sin and evil, keep me from harm and from harming anyone, defend me, sustain me, provide for me, inspire me, direct me, walk with me, guide me, guard me, encourage and calm me…all these and more are pressed into those three words “watch over me.”

God, like parents and grandparents, doesn’t go off duty when His children go to sleep; He keeps watch 24/7. Luther advises saying that very same prayer again at bedtime. After that, Luther instructs, “You are to go to sleep quickly and cheerfully.” When we know that God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is vigilantly watching over us, we can rest in peaceful sleep, secure in His loving arms.

God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit watch over me. Amen. [Martin Luther]

I lay down and slept, yet I woke up in safety, for the Lord was watching over me. [Psalm 3:5 (NLT)]

The Lord says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you. [Psalm 32:8 (NLT)]

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WHERE IS GOD?

DARK GREEN FRITILLARY“You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people. No, don’t be afraid. I will continue to take care of you and your children.” So he reassured them by speaking kindly to them. [Genesis 50:20-21 (NLT)]

The above words were spoken by Joseph to his brothers—the men who planned on killing him until greed entered into it and they sold him into slavery for twenty pieces of silver. In retrospect, God’s plan made sense to Joseph but what about the thirteen years he spent between being thrown into a cistern like a piece of trash and becoming second in command to Pharaoh? Was Jacob’s beloved son so confident of God’s plan while standing on the slave auction block in Egypt? What about when he was unjustly accused of rape by Potiphar’s wife? He may have been the warden’s favorite prisoner, but he languished in jail for a crime he refused to commit! What did he think of God’s plan then? When Pharaoh’s cup-bearer was restored to his former position, Joseph’s hopes rose only to have them dashed when the man forgot about his cell mate for another two years. Did Joseph ever doubt? Did he ever ask, “Where’s God in all of this?”

I thought of Joseph’s words after praying for a toddler who is fighting a losing battle with metastasized cancer. In terrible pain, her physicians are running out of treatment options. “Where is God in all of this?” I wondered. “What good can possibly come from it?” If I’m asking these questions, I know her family must be asking them as well. As they watch their daughter suffer, do they ever wonder if God has abandoned them? In retrospect, maybe it will make sense someday. Perhaps the knowledge the toddler’s oncologists glean from her treatment will save some other child. Who knows? Right now, however, her parents can’t look back—they can only look forward and the future is bleak.

It’s times like these that call for faith and hope. God didn’t walk away from us when He finished with creation and He hasn’t walked away from us now. He is still here—at large and in charge! No matter how desolate the circumstances appear, God has not forgotten, abandoned or ignored us.

If I truly believe God is good and in control, I must trust in His inexplicable plan. I believe He is gently holding this little girl and wiping her tears. I believe He is standing with His arms around her worried parents as they stand beside her and that He’s guiding the hospital staff as they insert IVs and search for ways to save her precious life. I know His Holy Spirit is giving voice to my silent prayers for her.

In retrospect, Joseph saw God’s purpose in all he endured. Whether or not we will ever understand God’s actions regarding this beautiful child, I don’t know. From Joseph’s story, we know that God can reroute evil to accomplish good. God was there for Joseph and He’s there for this little girl and her family. He is present; we’re just having trouble seeing Him. Open our eyes, O Lord, open our eyes.

We want Christ to hurry and calm the storm. He wants us to find Him in the midst of it first. [Beth Moore]

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!” [Lamentations 3:21-24 (NLT)]

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