But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.
I've had a few opportunities to learn from strong and amazing women this past month (actually, I get to learn from strong and amazing women daily, but that's a different story). Several weeks ago, I was privileged to attend a special lecture here at the University of Delaware to hear the stories of Dr. Loretta Prater and Ms. Sybrina Fulton, the mothers of Leslie Prater and Trayvon Martin. Both of their sons were killed unjustly by excessive police force. The conversation focused primarily around compassionately understanding the experiences of these black mothers and the need for implementing just systems that protect life.
It was heartbreaking, infuriating, and inspiring. Yet I was struck how from the stage, when asked about how she handles this ongoing loss and what advice she can give others, Dr. Prater began with a comment that you don't hear very often in a university lecture. "You have to pray," she calmly stated. She shared that even when we do everything right, we can't always control what happens, and she would not know what to do if she didn't pray all the time. Praying for change in systems, for change in hearts, for strength to make it through the next few moments. It was completely appropriate sharing in an interview format, but it left the crowd quieted. This was an academic professional who has dedicated her life to working for justice. And the first thing she mentions is prayer.
I'm sure many expected to hear the opposite. "More change, less prayers!" But Dr. Prater humbly refused to place these two options in opposition to each other. And let me tell you, after seeing the spirit in that woman, all I wanted to do afterwards was sit in her living room chair with a cup of tea and let her wisdom just soak in. Prater for president?
Then, just this past week, I was talking with one of you dear ones in our community, who teaches. And we spoke about managing the complex challenges of teaching in schools. And as we talked about how overwhelming it all is, you told me, "You just have to pray. All day long. In the car, in between classes, at lunch. You just pray all the time, that God is with you and helps you. You pray for the kids, their families. You just have to pray, all the time."
That sort of faithfulness, trust, and desperation moves me.
In this lenten season, I am being drawn toward the centrality of prayer in those who are truly grounded in living out God's kingdom in real ways.
Both of these strong women are committed to transforming our society for the better. With their lives, they are trying to make our world more whole, more beautiful, and more like Jesus imagined it. Prayer is not separate from the real work. It's the starting point to keep our souls intact as we do it.
We walk through lent imagining Jesus in the desert, praying unceasingly, day after day. Far from passive, he would emerge ready to do the work he was called to do. And in just a week, we'll remember Jesus walking into the garden at nightfall, to wrestle in prayer. He would emerge, ready to absorb all the ugliness and violence and corruptive power that this world had to offer. He would defeat it with love and reveal a better way forward.
So in this week, as we continue to long for resurrection but maybe aren't seeing it so much... I want to encourage you to learn from Jesus and the strong women who have been teaching me lately.
In our anger, may we always ask God for love.
In our sorrow, may we always ask God for comfort.
In our confusion, may we always ask God for wisdom.
In our exhaustion, may we always ask God for strength.
In a culture of death, may we always ask God to bring life.
In the windy and stormy spring, may we always cling tightly to the vine.
In our living, our loving, and our working for good, may we always be grounded on Jesus.
And may unceasing prayer lead us to courage, conviction, mercy, and love.
As I envision Jesus' heart heavy with the realities of a broken world, yet still believing that the kingdom was unfolding, I am drawn to lean in close to the Spirit, for I feel no other option. I want to encourage you to join me. So in a tone without force, without guilt, without inaction, and without passivity, I invite you to bring everything to Jesus, today, all day long. Let your living flow from there. Full of love, I implore you: We have to pray.
Jesus, let this moment be a starting point for a day of complete connection with you, leading me to the fullest expression of working for good.
You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in their distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat.
Friends, we are getting deeper into the Lenten season, exploring our own frailty and need for Jesus, even as we consider the journey of Jesus himself. Today I'm simply sitting with an incredible image that I stumbled upon a few days ago.
This photograph was taken in Kenya in 1993 by French Photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand. It's an aerial view of an acacia tree in the barren savannah in Tsavo East National Park.
Take a moment and receive the beauty of this image.
The network of lines you see spiderwebbing from the tree are animal trails, worn deep from years of daily pilgrimage. In a harsh landscape, all sorts of animals are drawn to the acacia tree, seeking the shade of its branches and nourishment from its leaves. This tree is such a profoundly important destination that the entire area surrounding the tree itself is worn bare. So many thoughts here.
This thirty year old photograph is stunning on its own. But it's also provocative as we consider this image in light of our discipleship journey.
Throughout the scriptures, God is a refuge in times of trouble. God is a source of life, making a way in a barren landscape. God is our sustenance. Protector. Shelter. Our rest. And Jesus is the full embodiment of this living God.
So today I'm looking at this image and seeing Jesus in the center as the destination of my journey when I am dry, thirsty, or in need of refuge. When I am seeking rest in the intensity of the desert, or sustenance for the days ahead, where do my well worn paths lead?
If I charted my life from above, would I see this many trails to Jesus?
If we charted our lives from above, would we see this many trails to Jesus?
Too often these questions have been used to induce guilt or beat us down with all the areas we aren't good enough. But it's far better to use them as reminders and invitations. God promises rest and renewal if we continue to find our identity deep God's love and care, rather than wandering around in the desert and hoping to stumble upon something that will sustain us. We all have well worn paths in our lives. But the deepest sense of wholeness will only come when those paths all move toward the source of life and love at the center.
And, (here we go!) what about if we view this as an image for the Body of Christ in the world? Followers of Jesus are called to be the embodiment of God's love, compassion, and redemption in the world. Are people drawn to the refuge and deep life that they experience when they are among Christians? Are we creating that sort of atmosphere as a Jesus-centered movement, where people are drawn to us because they clearly sense the compassionate, other-oriented love of God? We all know that the answer is not always a resounding yes. But rather than give up, perhaps today we sit with this image and ask ourselves:
What can each of us do to ensure that others who are walking through the desert find the love and care of Jesus when they meet us?
The desert journey is something that all of us are familiar with in one way or another. But let us not forget, as spring continues to approach, and resurrection is beginning to come into view on the horizon.... that we always have a profound source of life- to both receive and to offer to others.... if we choose to move toward him.
Jesus, lead me toward your presence throughout my day today, so that I might find rest, and be a refuge to others.
This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.
On Sunday the east coast dropkicked our clocks by one hour, which was simultaneously called "losing an hour" and "moving an hour forward." Not sure which it really is. All I know is that in one moment, millions of us just changed the reality of how we track time itself, and then just carried on like it wasn't super weird.
That's a good segue into something I've been thinking about. I recently watched a recorded interview from the 1980s with Frank Zappa. Zappa was a legendary guitarist and improvisational musician for three decades. His music was odd and memorable, rarely conforming to what was popular or expected. But it wasn't the (impressive) music that he played that caught my attention. It was how he understood the very act of playing it.
He was asked if he was a great guitarist. "I'm just specialized," he responded. "I do a lot of things that aren't typical of other musicians." He went on to describe that many guitarists follow the same rules: they rehearse the exact same solos over and over again until they are flawless. They go from one concert to another, playing the same thing in the same way every time, with little variation. But then he spoke of the music he has learned to make. He shared that when the time comes in the song for a guitar feature, he simply uses the skills that he has cultivated and the gifts he has been given to make whatever fits most beautifully in the moment, in connection with his other musicians. He talked a little more about improvisation, and then he looked up at his interviewer and said this:
"It's a game where you have a piece of time.... and you get to decorate it."
Oh my. I just found a new favorite concept. Thanks Frank.
I wonder what it means to decorate time?
I've been personally reflecting on my relationship with time for weeks. We live in a rushed reality. Being a contemplative requires intentionality to slow down and be still, learning to listen and look for the fingerprints of God. But it's bigger than just stopping. A larger question is this: In God's world, how do we view our time?
I often go in one of these directions:
I run out of time (too much to do!)
I lose track of time (time to stop scrolling...)
I want time to move faster (how long til vacation?)
I want time to stop (where are the years going?)
I want to be better at managing my time. But time management is such a utilitarian word, isn't it? It's as if you go to work and it's your job to make sure that no minutes get out of control or take a smoke break before they should. You've got to manage that time, dang it!
But an artist goes to work in a different way. Their goal is to imagine and create beauty. No one manages a blank canvas. They decorate it.
Rather than constantly viewing time as something to manage, make more of, or get through.... perhaps a fresh metaphor can help in our discipleship. Perhaps we should look to Jesus each day and ask, "How can I decorate my time today?"
Jesus decorated his time by looking up, looking in, and looking out. He had interesting and diverse conversations with people, showing love and care. He found beautiful places to pray and he spent time helping people move toward wholeness. He decorated his travels by seeing distractions as opportunities to love and heal. He lived fully present, in hope of the future.
His time was beautiful and unexpected. It was decorated well.
Just imagine. "How was your day today?"
"It was beautiful. I decorated my time with all sorts of colorful things."
Oh, family. This could be a wonderful way to think about God's kingdom growing in our world.
As Christ followers who have hope in God's eternal life and God's renewal of all things, time is a gift to receive. Maybe we should spend less energy managing it and more time beautifying it with the gifts, skills, and creativity that God has uniquely placed in each of us to further the Kingdom? It'll look different for me than you, with lots of improvisation. That's the point. So then, how will you decorate time today?
Jesus, lead me into a beautiful expression of your abundant life today.
So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death.
Today my streak climbed to 130 consecutive days of Spanish lessons on Duolingo. If you're not familiar with Duolingo, it's a language learning app. It has collected a cult following because of its immersive approach, game-like lessons, and unorthodox marketing techniques. I get a notification regularly from a cartoon emo teen girl named Lily telling me maybe I should do today's lesson...."or don't. whatever. what do I care." And for some unknown reason, I desperately want her to think I'm cool. But I don't want her to know that.
Anyway, I am on a quest to spend a few minutes each day reclaiming my old Spanish skills and forming new ones. But because I'm cheap, I have the free version. That means I only get five "hearts," and each time I make a mistake, I lose one, so I need to be very careful. And if I lose them all, I am shut down for hours for my hearts to get restored. ¡Ten cuidado, amigos!
The free version also means that I have to watch a brief advertisement every time I complete a 5-minute lesson. And the one that runs most regularly is (you guessed it) the ad for the paid version of Duolingo, creatively titled: Super Duolingo.
And in the video, every single time I sit through it, they mention the same incredible perk: Try Super Duolingo! With infinite hearts, there are NO LIMITS to the mistakes you can make!
How inspiring. Seriously, every time I hear them say that, I am discouraged at their lack of faith in my linguistic skills. But also, I can't help but think: would infinite hearts actually motivate me to try? Aren't I motivated to focus particularly because if I don't, I'll be shut down?
But they back up their offer with stats: Super Duolingo learners are four times more likely to complete their courses than the rest of us! Apparently the statistics show that the best learning environment includes the freedom to fail regularly, rather than the pressure to perform.
It appears that Jesus agrees, as he seems to promote the view that there's no limit to the amount of times we should forgive each other, and that God's acceptance of us is never based on our lack of mistakes. And the early church seemed to support this as well, with Paul proclaiming that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not mistakes, not struggles. Nothing in all the world. It's all grace upon grace if we're walking with Jesus.
The Lent season is very much about embracing our humanity with Jesus, and coming to grips with our frailty. It's about admitting that we are in need of a doctor, and graciously receiving the truth that Jesus said he specifically came for people who can admit their need. Infinite hearts! No limit to the mistakes you can make...
The upside down part of God's kingdom, however, is that receiving grace for our imperfections will not give us license to do whatever we'd like. As people who experience radical grace constantly, it's the very power of that grace that inspires us to stay the course, moving ever more toward the way of love and faithfulness, even when we fall short of our ideals. The freedom to fail moves us toward a deeper commitment to learn, grow, and love more deeply, rather than 1). crushing guilt, or 2). a free-for-all to act however selfishly we want to.
Have you remembered that there is enough grace today for you to walk freely in love and trust? When the heart is postured toward Jesus, the knowledge of God's infinite grace for us creates a culture of unlimited growth in us. And by God's grace, it will lead us to speak fluently the language of love to all those we encounter each day.
Jesus, help me live out of the gift of grace again today.
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out...
For the season of Lent at our church, we're reflecting on the healing stories of Jesus found in the gospels. We're considering what God might be speaking to us today through those encounters about our own need for healing in so many ways. On Sunday we read a story from John 5 of a man who was disabled for 38 years, waiting with others at a pool that he thought would heal him if he got into it at the right moment. Jesus sees him, asks him if he wants to be well (that seems insensitive), and just a few moments later, the guy walks away healed. There's more to it than that (at least I hope so- I turned it into a 35 minute sermon). And there's much to be explored about our own desire for healing and willingness to move toward it, especially during the lenten season. Now, our conversation wasn't really about physical healing. It was about whatever ways we find ourselves in need of wholeness.
In the story, it wasn't just what happened, but what didn't happen that caught the notice of some in our community. We frequently have a Q and Eh? dialogue time after our messages, and this week was really good. Some issues were brought up that we don't often mention in stories like these, because it's just so darn... messy.
Like: If there were a ton of sick people there, why did Jesus only heal that one guy? Did he heal the others too?
Like: Why do some people get healed and others don't?
Like: An instantaneous moment of healing is wonderful, but God doesn't seem to work like that very much anymore.
Like: How do we think/speak about moments where we feel God worked (healing, protection, etc) when it could cause real harm to others whose experiences with loss are not like that?
And here's my big, wise, insightful pastoral response to those questions:
I don't know.
And I'm ok with that.
These kids of questions can paralyze us, especially if we have been exposed to a worldview where the idea of having dynamic faith in God got linked to having adequate answers about all the things.
I love asking questions. Yet I also know that some of those questions will never be resolved. How much does/doesn't God intervene in the laws of physics? How much is God's work more subtle and internal? How should we feel about situations that we are absolutely sure God is opposed to, yet we see very little change-- where powerful people, natural disasters, and illness continue to do great harm?
We can just give a broad sweep that if God is all powerful, then God is somehow behind both the good and bad, and we just don't see the big picture. This might make us feel consistent, but it leaves us with a character gap. Because every time that we see Jesus encounter brokenness (sickness, suffering) he offers compassion. Plus, the guy cries because of how broken the world is. So we simply cannot put God as the author of the same stuff that breaks God's heart. It doesn't make sense, and it doesn't feel like Jesus.
So we are left unresolved. We are left without having everything airtight, wrapped up in a bow, and systematically organized.
And I want to tell you, friends.... that is alright. It's ok to have unresolved elements in your faith. It's ok to believe that God is good and at work to renew all things... yet not understand how evil and brokenness persist. It's the same posture the Psalmist had so often, so you are in good company. It's ok to walk in a faith that's full of beauty and full of unanswered mystery, even if it makes us uncomfortable.
On some level God will always be beyond our understanding. And yet we have God in a person, living out accessible stories of love and instruction, so that we have enough to go on. I don't know exactly how God works outside of what I see in Jesus. But what I see in Jesus is compelling enough to commit my life to trusting and following.
There is beautiful peace that emerges when we can know God while not knowing everything about God. And maybe as Christians admit that a bit more easily, others will welcome their perspectives into the conversation more often. I recently heard a comedian give a bit where she said, "the think I miss most about being a Christian is looking down on everyone who didn't have all the answers." Oh Lord, forgive us.
A core of these lenten weeks is learning honesty and trust in the desert season with Jesus. I can't think of a better way to practice that than holding the love of God and the mystery of God together as we center our lives on the way of Jesus.
Jesus, help me trust you, even in the unresolved places.
*Just to be clearly affirming to those who raised these questions this week: I think it's so valuable to do that, and I applaud you for leaning into this. Humble wrestling is an integral part of active faith.