First Week of Lent

Genesis 1:21-26

As we make our way through Lent, we begin in the beginning, with Genesis 1 and God declaring that human beings are made in the image of God, a topic that I hope to revisit in future devotion texts. That is where the pilgrimage of Lent and all our pilgrimages begin, knowing that as we set out and as we embark on this journey we are made in the image of God and are part of God’s good creation. We don’t always live like it. Indeed, the first humans seem to revolt against any limitations placed on humanity and our autonomy. And so our Lenten journey begins knowing that there is some self-destructive tendencies baked into our humanity, that we long for divine qualities and chafe at our mortality and our finite lives. Let is the embrace of our mortality and our own limitations though. As the ashes are placed on our forehead, we are these words, ‘remember we are dust and to dust we shall return.’ We are reminded that though we are created in the image of God, we will not live on this earth forever, our days are numbered, as the psalmist says (Psalm 90:12), and that is not a handicap as our primal parents thought and we often assume, but a gift. We are mortal, so make this life count. We are mortal, so we better not fritter away our days. We are mortal, so we better make an impact on this earthly stage in service to Jesus Christ. Presbyterians have generally accepted with a bit of a grain of salt. We do not believe in just a season of repentance. We do not believe we can somehow get ourselves right on the road to Easter. Yet the spiritual practice of Lent has been around since the early church, preparing new believers for baptism and the life of faith, and reminding us that Lent is a journey to the cross and resurrection, as is the broader scope of our lives and life together. As we walk together and make this pilgrimage together, may we embrace these days as a gift, to focus on the gifts of God’s creation, to remember that we are made in God’s image, and also to remember that we are mortal and dust and to dust we shall return. In the meantime, may we impact this world for Christ’s sake as we journey to the cross and resurrection.

"Lost Souls" watercolor by Candy Ulmer Cranch, M.Ed.

O Lord our God, walk with us as we seek to mark these days from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Guide our feet, help us to share each other’s burdens, and remember we carry your image in our life together. May we accept our own mortality graciously, even as we seek to impact this world for Christ’s sake. Amen.

Psalm 32

“If you love someone, set them free. If they come back, it was meant to be.” I am positive you have heard this phrase at one time or another in your life, typically when you experience your first heartbreak. This phrase means you cannot make anyone stay in a relationship or even a friendship with you, no matter how much you long for that to be untrue. But, if you could, would you really want to? Would that really be the type of relationship that could stand any test? Growing up, I attended Catholic school from first grade to senior year. This meant religion class five times a week and mass every Wednesday. Religion class was never easy for me, it was actually one of my toughest subjects. I felt I was always being forced to partake in this weekly tradition just because I had to. When forced to do anything in life, humans have a natural tendency to fight back. Have you ever tried to put socks and/or shoes on an unwilling toddler?! Because of this, after graduation I decided I was no longer going to be a practicing Catholic. The ultimate rebellion: the final act of breaking up with God. And what was He to do but let me go? Set me free? After all, when you love someone, you must set them free if they choose to leave. We all have our moments of pulling away from God, of seemingly choosing to leave.

While in a spiritual limbo, I could feel the weight of my sin stacking on me. The weight of His hand sapping my strength. Because of my silence, I felt my “bones wasting away.” Luckily, God’s love has no time limit and it is beyond any earthly understanding. I needed to figure this out for myself, to understand life without God to see the true power of God’s grace. But He will never force us to come back, that is a choice one must make on their own accord.
Acknowledging our transgressions is the first step in allowing God’s grace to enter under our own roof; this is exactly what I did. Willfully putting my faith into God’s hands and accepting his grace. God will never force us to do anything. Because He loves us, He will let us ‘go,’ that is His grace too. The humble return was my path that was meant to be. No matter what, He will choose us again and again through grace. Take a few moments today to reflect on how God’s grace impacts your life and how you can display it in your relationships with loved ones and strangers alike.

by Lilly Wheeler, age 3

Romans 5:12-19

In chapter 5 of Romans, Paul presents humanity in the starkest terms—we have been trying to claw ourselves out alone. The answer to true liberation, says Paul, is Christ. We cannot free ourselves from the outside in.
To give this metaphor some meaning, I’d like to introduce you to someone who literally cannot free herself—my pen pal, who is incarcerated in a women’s correctional facility in Texas. We have been writing back and forth for about a year and a half. I do not know why she is in prison or how long she has been there. What I do know is that she is a faithful believer in Jesus Christ. I know that she prays every day. I know that she reads her Bible and looks to God in her lowest moments. Not only is she locked up, but she is confined to a wheelchair and is not in touch with any of her family. Even among this adversity, she is a witness to me. Her love for Christ pulls her through her most difficult days when her block is in lock down or she is shackled inside a van going to a doctor’s appointment.
I think of wilderness time as a lonely period when believers encounter hardships, sometimes doubting their faith. My pen pal is truly in a wilderness time as she encounters so much suffering in prison. She is in-between, in a waiting period, somewhere between captivity and freedom. Yet even though her physical body is not free, she remains free in the Spirit. She continues to encounter Christ every day. In a place not many people would think to look. And that is true grace in the wilderness.
In our scripture for today, Romans 5:12-19, we see that the grace of Christ is a total reversal of the sin of Adam. Eugene Peterson, in his translation of verse 17 in the Message, calls Christ’s grace “this wildly extravagant life-gift, this grand setting-everything-right.” In prison, you don’t have freedom of movement. You don’t get to choose your outfit or your next meal. Your every step is governed by an institution. And yet. There are some things that cannot be taken away. My friend’s faith, her beautiful spirit, her deeply embodied hope—these cannot be taken away. This abundance of grace is a wildly extravagant gift, and it is all of ours for the taking.
Where are you finding this gift of grace in this Lenten season?

by Arden Weiser, age 15

Matthew 4:1-11

“St. Kevin and the Blackbird” by Seamus Heaney
And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
and Lays in it and settles down to nest.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.
And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time
From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in Love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

St Caoimhín (“Kevin”) of Glendalough was an ascetic Irish monk and abbot who lived (allegedly) from 498 to 618 C.E. He appears to have spent many of those 120 years unsuccessfully pursuing solitude - he was so beloved a leader, no sooner would he set up housekeeping in an isolated hovel than his followers would swiftly find him and settle themselves nearby. Monastic communities sprouted up around him wherever he went.
Nobel prize winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ in 1996. The poem describes Kevin as he stills his body in service of a bird’s “tucked/Neat head,” which is also “the network of eternal life.” I like to imagine that the “prayer his body makes entirely” is the grace in the wilderness we are asked this Lent to contemplate. That Kevin’s days of extravagant sacrifice took him to the “space between” where we all fear and long to be ourselves.

Second Week of Lent

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

‘you will be like God…’
Being created in the image of God is obviously ‘not enough,’ when the prospect of being like God seems to be within grasp. And so we disdain or dismiss what we have and see our God-given gifts as limitations in preference of our desire to have what God has…fulfillment, perfection, and power. Nevermind that in JesusChrist, God forfeits power, control, and limitlessness to become one of us in Him, showing us that true freedom is found not in all the choices at our fingertips, but in freedom, in limitation, and in commitment. We learn what it means to truly be a human being by following what God does in Christ: showing up in people’s lives, keeping our promises, forgiving wrongs, and rejoicing in and making full use of our God-given gifts. We don’t have to spend our lives trying to become like God because God has already become one of us and we are called to live our lives as true human reflections of God’s grace.

Prayer: O Lord our God, keep us from chasing after the shallow and ephemeral things; help us to embrace our limitations and hold fast to the lasting things; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sculpture, mixed materials (copper wire, beads, resin, paint, natural elements) by Madeline Weiser

Psalm 121

How is it that one of the shortest Psalms has some of the tallest impact?
The first family vacation I can recall from early childhood in Meridian MS was a trip to the Smokey Mountains with stops in Chattanooga and Gatlinburg TN. My family played a car-ride game when approaching Birmingham AL to look to the foothills to find the VULCAN statue atop the first really big hill in the area. Success. Next came the SEE ROCK CITY signs and happiness reigned. Even as an elementary school student I knew the beauty of the mountains was something REAL and made by God. My next mountain-top experience was as an exchange student to Scotland before entering college, an afternoon when six Meridian High students went high-hill climbing near the University of Dundee. Having been away from home for a month, the group experienced the majesty of the mountains that brought a sense of longing for our homeland. These half-dozen teenagers broke out in song loudly proclaiming GOD BLESS AMERICA when they reached the top. Even Kate Smith would have smiled at the reverence expressed. I will never forget how close to God I felt at that moment. Then in Fall 2019, before the COVID-19 outbreak, Lee and I had the opportunity to travel with an alumni group to Switzerland and the Rhine. No mountain-range could possibly be that inspiring! There it was – THE MATTERHORN. Snow-covered, with a distinct outline at its peak (and often duplicated in chocolate in the candy stores below) silence covered the crowd with awe. Photos were taken and the incline railroad clacked slowly but mankind knew only God could create such a structure.

"The Matterhorn", taken by Kathy & Lee Randall, 2019

Prayer: God of the highs and lows in our lives, may we reflect on the fact that you guard us when we leave and when we return. Your hand created beauty and awe in all things. May we rejoice in your splendor and know with respect that YOU ARE GOD OF OUR LIVES. AMEN.

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Paul tells us boldly that Abraham, known as our first father in faith, was justified by grace through faith. Abraham was in relationship with God not because Abraham offered a burnt offering or because he followed the laws of God. He was in relationship with God because God desired a relationship with Abraham, as God does with each of us. Abraham trusted God to lead him, rather than Abraham leading himself.
Like Abraham, we should trust God to lead us – an offer made to all people of all cultures and every nation. God claims all of us as family. In this time of Lenten reflection, pray for the gift of faith, the ability to trust in God’s direction and to hear God’s call. To fully live into God’s desires for us, it takes practice on our part and Lent provides the time and space to deepen our faith.
Gracious God, thank you for your love. Help me fully understand the gift of faith that you have given me. Give me the wisdom to live out your guidance in my every hour in every day. Amen.

"Roses" by Leon Hinson

Genesis 12:1-4

‘So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.’
Faith is a verb. It is not something we possess, but something that possesses us, a rising tide that lifts us and takes us out to places and into people’s lives we had not really counted on going. These Old Testament passages, which are the lectionary passages assigned to the Sundays in Lent, are all about pilgrimage, about going, about movement from the world we know to the world that has yet to encounter us. We often confuse faith with holding on at all costs to our folkways or our customs or our sacred traditions, but while faith is not dismissive of the past, it is much more interested in helping us confront the opportunities to be Christ’s disciples in the present moment that confronts us, whatever they may be, and giving us hope and energy and excitement about the future. Perhaps you have heard it said that people who do not care about the future do not plant trees. Planting trees is a hope-filled activity because it is very unlikely that we will ever get the satisfaction of climbing them or swinging from their branches or sitting under their shade. Abram exhibits faith, a trust in God’s promises, but he also exhibits hope, a hope that the world God is leading him toward will bear fruit, not only for him, but for all those descendants who follow him. Such faith and hope would not have come to fruition if he had stayed at home, stayed static, and just tried to preserve the past.

Kate Knight, age 15

Prayer: O Lord our God, help us to look where you are calling us to ‘go’ today, and when we lay our heads down tonight give us hope for tomorrow; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Matthew 17:1-9

If I had a nickel for every time God descended upon me in a bright cloud and gave me direct instructions for what to do in a given situation, I would unfortunately come up empty-handed. As wonderful as it would be to have God’s clear blessing and direction over our lives, He seems to prefer to work more subtly. This is one of the many reasons why I am fascinated by the circumstances of Jesus’ Transfiguration. Instead of performing this miracle outside of the Temple on a crowded day, for instance, the scene is set high on a mountain with only a quarter of the disciples present. Perhaps Jesus intentionally selected such an isolated setting for this divine moment as a measure of our Christian faith. Only three people witnessed these events on the mountain so the rest of us must believe without seeing. And what a spectacle to have seen! Jesus in the form of blinding light, Elijah and Moses appearing before them, God’s voice booming from a cloud telling them to follow Jesus - I too would have fallen to the ground in fear. I can only imagine how baffled the disciples must have felt by this experience, and Jesus must have recognized the limitations of their human comprehension as well. After comforting the disciples by telling them to not be afraid, He instructs them to not tell anyone until after He is raised from the dead - something that the disciples do not know about yet. In this moment, it seems that Jesus is telling his disciples to pause. These men have just experienced something beyond human understanding and are not yet ready to share what they have seen with the world. Instead He instructs them to wait, reflect, and then when the time is right, to share.

"Watercolor Landscapes" by Savannah Weiser

There are moments in life that can be difficult to understand. When such situations arise, sometimes all we can do is simply to pause, reflect, and share. Take a moment to reflect on something in your life that you do not yet comprehend. Can we, like Peter, James, and John, trust Jesus when He says “do not be afraid,” and hold faith that understanding will come in time?

Third Week of Lent

Psalm 95

When I think on the splendor of your love
My being is filled with insurmountable joy
I become consumed with gratitude
even as I grovel in the anguish of what feels like insurmountable grief
In times like this
You comfort me without words
You’ll send me a shooting star
Or a butterfly
A cloud that looks like a turtle
Or even a companion in the form of an animal or person to lift my spirits and to show me that life is filled with simple joys
Filled to bursting
It’s moments like this
I remember that you are so good to me
You show me that there are no limits to your love, your grace, nor your gifts
You let me know you are here in the moments I need to remember you most
You have a way of knowing what I need before I do and making me laugh even as tears stream down my face
and I think there is not a single laugh to be had within my body
You show me your radiant beauty each day in the sunrise and sunset

I like to imagine the vibrant pinks, oranges, and golds are your grand entrance of hope and opportunity into my day
I like to believe that there is perpetual joys in new beginnings as you send the sun across the globe
All the same, you celebrate the day with us as you prepare us for rest with your grand exit
Reminding us of your glory by gifting us vibrant, captivating hues like a warm goodnight hug
The stars shimmer over us like your own special blanket
Anywhere I go
Be it mountains or plains
I look across the land at your incomprehensible glory
and inhale the knowledge that I am included
in the magnificence of your creation
In these gifts of life I return
And I will return even when I forget to breathe
From Earth to comforting Earth
From dust to replenishing dust
You are ever nearer to me
like I’ve never been away
For you have been with me all along

Romans 5:1-11

Lately, I’ve found spiritual fulfilment in taking old, difficult to recognize words and concepts and simplifying them. That’s what I needed to do with this scripture. Read through it and find words or phrases that stick out to you and mean something to you, maybe even rephrasing it so it’s clear to you when you read it. Mine looks like this:
Let us have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through Him we have access to faith. Into grace we now stand. We boast about the glory of God. Our suffering produces perseverance, character, and hope. Our hope is shameless because God’s love is with us in the Holy Spirit. Christ died for a humankind that is ungodly. Though we sin, a perfect Jesus died for us. Because He died for us, we have a sign God will not take his wrath out on us. We praise and thank God because of the reconciliation we have received with Christ.
I can read that a lot more easily than, well, the King James version for example.
I was distant from God for years without trying. Now I find I look, long for, and find our Creator everywhere, especially in the words and hymns in church. Otherwise, I find the time empty and unfulfilling. What am I actually saying? What do these words really mean? What am I singing? And, do I even believe the robotic words I say?
Questions are sometimes associated with doubt. I have been wandering in the wilderness the most when I experience things I think God could change. I want to know why He “let this thing happen.” We think our suffering is unique, but sometimes it’s what unites us. We need to ask others to help us wrestle with these questions. If you can’t find a hand to hold in the wilderness, remember when Moses was wandering, God gave him holy ground. If you let yourself search, you’ll find God in unexpected places. Probably not a burning bush, but you just may notice little miracles that happen to you every day.
Open the eyes of my heart, Lord. I want to see you. See you high and lifted up, shining in the light of your glory. You are holy.

"Wilderness" by Jack Karas, age 5

Prayer: Lord, open my eyes to the wilderness around me. Forgive me for when I have closed myself off from your whisper. Make me brave. Help me to ask hard questions. Thank you for your Word. Amen.

John 4:5-42

The Samaritan woman at the well is the first person to engage in sustained theological conversation with Jesus, asking Jesus one of the most important theologically pressing questions of the time - where do we worship God? The Samaritans worshiped God up on the mountain while the Jewish people worshiped in temple in Jerusalem. Which is correct the woman ask, how should we worship God?
As you might expect, Jesus’ answer wasn’t quite as simple as they might like, neither the mountain nor the temple is how we will worship God in the future, Jesus answers. The conversation starts about finding God in ways and places we weren’t quite expecting. It’s not just on the sacred mountain, it’s not just in the sacred temple, it’s in the spaces between.
I grew up going to church every Sunday at a presbyterian church in NJ but we lived 2 blocks from the ocean so many a summer Sunday if the tides were right and wave conditions good, our family would trade the pews for the waves. My dad and I would paddle out into the waves on our boggie boards and spend hours riding the waves - floating, paddling, drifting. Finding God in the waves, in the smiles and laughter as we race down the face of the waves, in the warmth of the sun, in the smell of the ocean air. Like Moana, the sea very much called my dad and me. It was the voice of God saying I’m here and you are loved. I’ll always remember the look of his face as we caught each other’s eyes, lost in the wonder of God’s creation, feeling a peace that passes understanding settle upon us as we crested the waves together.

Picture take by Katie while floating the waves of home beach in Seaside Park, New Jersey

(cont.) My dad’s passed now but I’ve got a note in his handwriting on the wall next to my bed that says “went bodyboarding -Cliff” that greets me every day as I wake up reminding me of both his love, and the love of God the creator who know what it is to hold all these feelings in this space between. Jesus opens boundaries and challenges the status quo when talking to the Samaritan woman. May Jesus continue to open our boundaries and challenge our status quo, widening our horizons and finding God in the spaces between.

Exodus 17:1-7

In 2010, my wife Stephanie and I brought to our close our employment at church and speech therapy centers respectively, we sold a cars, and with our 4 year old, 2 year old, and 6 month old, moved to Scotland where I began a Ph.D. program at the University of Edinburgh School of Divinity. It was a traumatic and challenging experience to move out of our house, pack up our belongings, pack up our children, and drive our rental car to JFK airport in the middle of the night so we could arrive and load up for the overseas one-way flight to Scotland. When we finally loaded up our bags, our diaper bags, our wagon, our favorite toys, and our kids onto the plane, and we were ready to take off for our transatlantic flight, I turned to Stephanie and said: ‘we made it.’ To which she responded: ‘made it? This is just the beginning. We have a long way to go.’ She was right. Israel is out in the wilderness having ‘made it’ through the exodus and saved from slavery in Egypt, but they are far from the promised land. In fact, they are in the wilderness dreaming of being back in Egypt where at least they had three squares a day. Sometimes we don’t understand where we are going, where we are headed, or even why God has led us to where we are. This wilderness wandering was true for the Israelites and was a staple of Israelite religiosity. There is questioning and soul searching and wrestling with God in the wilderness and in the journey of faith. We don’t always get the answers or timetable we wanted or expected or hoped for and yet we trust that God will keep God’s promises.

by Remy Karas, age 5

Prayer: Almighty God, in the wilderness, in the rough bends in the journey, in our own wandering, be a very present help in trouble, a deliverer in every distress, and a comforter in tribulation, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Fourth Week of Lent

Psalm 23

Can one find meaning in Psalm 23 if one is not going through the valley of the shadow of death? This Scripture, attributed to King David, expresses familiar words of comfort and hope many of us are pointed to when going through “the thick of it.” That said, in my current season of life I have not been experiencing heavy grief, significant loss, or major obstacles, nor do I feel I have many enemies who fill my days with anxiety or drama. It was hard for me not to wonder, “Is this a text to bookmark and return back to on a rainier day?”
It didn’t take long for God to speak to me (which is, of course, a metaphor that for me means I felt an inspiration in my heart leading me towards deeper love and truth): Not all valleys are visible, nor are all enemies obvious. For me, this Psalm can be a timeless reminder that if God is not on the forefront of my heart, I am not flourishing, even if life “feels” untroubled for me.
I began to consider the almost imperceptible battles with love I fight on a daily basis. Perhaps the biggest is the way, in my work and my relationships, I wrestle with perfectionism and control instead of trusting in the Lord. I so deeply desire to make a difference in the world, to fix problems I see around me, and to ensure the healing of the most people I can in my life. However, this can too easily lead to me “playing God” - entering myself emotionally into interpersonal dynamics that cannot and need not be fixed, feeling anxious about my lesson plans when they don’t seem to speak to or accommodate every youth’s needs or journey, and trying to manufacture perfect outcomes to events that are out of my control. While my tendencies are well meaning, they create valleys that are not visible beyond the surface (even to me), subtle patterns of self-disappointment, restless worries of missing the mark. Perhaps I have more that weighs me down on a daily basis than first came to mind when reading the Psalm. How, I imagine, God yearns to rescue me from this weight, and lead me to deeper purpose, would that I heed my shepherd and let go of work/results that are not meant for me.

"Sheep and Shepherd" by Ann-Kempter Wheeler, age 5

In Youth Group, we recently had one of our volunteers, Michael, speak to how direly important matters of faith are in a lesson on accountability. “And what is crucial to understand,” I still remember him telling our youth, “is that, by turning away from love in small, subtle ways, we can burn ourselves in life without even realize it. We can be in ‘hell’ and be totally numb to that reality.”
To me, Michael’s message reverberates powerfully in Psalm 23, which henceforth for me will be a reminder that, even when things are steady, there is a battle for higher love that is constantly going on in our hearts and lives. Whether we are able to acknowledge it, or are lulled into complacency, our waters ARE troubled if we aren’t running to God’s table. Only there, and not in this life’s fair winds, do we find eternal goodness.

Ephesians 5:8-14

When I was growing up, there was nothing I hated more than repetition. When I got in trouble as a kid, my parents were always very good at correcting my behavior kindly yet firmly, something I appreciate greatly looking back. What I didn’t appreciate at the time (and likely never will) is that my parents had the habit of saying something ten times when once was all I thought was needed. Sometimes when I’m reading the Bible or hearing a sermon I get that feeling again, like I messed up at school and this is the third time today I’m hearing about it. There’s only so many times I can read a passage that, at the end of the day, boils down to “do the right thing and follow the righteous path” before I feel like I’m being condescended to.
On the other hand, I imagine Paul felt very much like an exasperated parent saying the same thing over and over again, and likely would have told me if he didn’t constantly correct (?) , nobody would understand. Early Christians seemed to have a habit of failing to understand what seemed like simple concepts. This passage from Paul to the Ephesians, begging us to “wake up” and “choose light,” is one that pops up fifty times throughout the Bible. Paul, like my parents, was repeating what wise men had said for centuries before him, in the hopes that maybe the Ephesians would get it this time.
Modern Christians are no more enlightened to truth than the many scattered churches of Paul’s day. We’re certainly not any better at following the right path, even when we’ve been told a hundred times before. So, as frustrating as it is to hear the same words I have heard since I was a boy - spread light into the world, do what is right, spread the Love of God through your word and deed - it is an evergreen reminder we would be remiss to pass over.

by Reed Smith, age 5

Prayer: Lord, you have guided us towards righteousness and we have gone astray. Our pride tells us we have heard Your Word already, that we have no need for the simple lessons anymore. Remind us that Sunday School lessons are just as true at any age as they are in kindergarten. Help us to spread Your Love through our word and deed every day, and grant us the wisdom to hear the old lessons with new ears. Amen.

John 9:1-41

My family loves to give toasts. We spend a lot of time preparing for special events because we know there will be time for toasts. Toasts can last hours, as each person at the table must stand, raise a glass, and pour out their heart for the occasion. The toasts at my rehearsal dinner lasted 4 hours, with only my immediate family and wedding party in attendance. There are rules for toasting, of course. You cannot toast with water: water is empty and the toast will not count. You must look people in the eye when clinking glasses, and you must honor everyone at your table with a nod, if you cannot physically touch their glass. Each toast ends with a signal to cheers or clink glasses, usually a word or sometimes a phrase.
“Slange” “Nostrovia” “L’chaim” “Bottoms up”
My favorite of the signals is “mud in your eye.”
Some say the origin of this phrase is from World War One and echoes the mud trenches, others say it is from wishes of good harvest, and others call to John 9, when a blind man receives sight after Jesus rubs mud on the blind man’s eyes. As a lifelong Presbyterian obviously, I tend to lean toward the biblical over harvest or war. And the sheer length of the chapter (41 verses) brings me memories of the long-winded toasts I grew up with.
The Gospel of John is a tricky gospel to write, preach, or study. When the New Testament was being put together 300 years after Christ’s death the Gospel of John almost didn’t make it. John was a stumbling block. People really wanted to cut out his gospel. One of the main arguments: not historically accurate. Too many inconsistencies. It is not a record as the others are so much as it is a piece of art. Everything is upside down.
In John’s Gospel, saliva and mud massaged into your eye is a blessing. Our faith invites us to flip the world upside to reimagine a new world and see what becomes of us. This lent I raise my glass and invite you to find a little mud in your eye. To flip convention and summon a new vantage or point of view. It might be uncomfortable, or even unorthodox- but by flipping things upside, you’ll be able to see things you never saw or noticed… before you had that mud in your eye.

"Oyster shell on canvas with acrylic paint" by April Weiser

Fifth Week of Lent

1 Samuel 16:1-13

‘Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.’
Whatever the image of God is, it does not seem to correlate with our outward characteristics or abilities. Otherwise, why not pick David’s older and more senior brothers to be king. Why does God often choose the least likely to be picked or the last one picked? Perhaps God sees qualities that we often overlook or that are less visible: persistence, resilience, steadfastness, character. How is character defined: how you treat others, how you act when no one is watching. We don’t know exactly why God picks Abram and David and the people of Israel. Other nations, tribes, and people seemed to have better and more impressive resumes. We also may not be sure why God called us. Here I am, Lord, now what? Yet we also know from the theologian Irenaeus that the ‘glory of God is humanity fully alive’ and when we are completely lost in wonder, love, praise, service, and flourishing in using our God-given gifts in service to God, we share that joy and that glory to God with the world. So may you know and rejoice in your calling, your vocation, and God’s claim upon your life, and may you be set free to not sit down until you are fully flourishing as God’s creature, now, and as we make our way to Palm Sunday and Easter.

"Dogwood" by Leon Hinson

Prayer: Good and gracious God, give us clarity, peace, and joy in our vocation and calling to serve you in this world. In the challenges and opportunities that confront us, help us to walk into them with joy, confidence, and courage, knowing that you are already walking toward us on the other side; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 130

Hello all, my name is Ashlin Murphy. I’ve had the privilege of working and living in the German alps for the past 2 years. While forcing yourself out of bed and to the clock-in station at 5:45 in the morning is tough to do anywhere, I find that one of the greatest perks of being here is watching the sunrise hit the mountains on the way to work. The peaks that surround me appear bright red or orange as the sky turns soft blue. No matter how many times I witness that sight, it never doesn’t feel new. Each morning feels like a fresh start, a full forgiveness. With this perspective, I resonate with the watchmen who “wait for the morning.”
Each day the sunrise looks never-ending, its depth spans on and on in the mountainous horizon. Though it could seem easy to feel alone in and intimidated by its vastness, I find comfort and fullness in the realization that each sunrise offers a new day to explore all the unknown horizons — and that no matter what I do, the Lord will be there to guide me.
With the Lord, there is unfailing love and redemption. Living in Germany has reminded/grounded me in my purpose to serve Him and His word. However, I never understood that I was waiting for the Lord. The same way that He is patient with me, I must be with Him. I need to consciously look for Him and His forgiveness. I’m grateful to be given a daily reminder of His power, but I probably miss several small proofs of forgiveness throughout my week. Use my sunrise to remind yourself to look for examples of the Lord providing you with a clean slate out of love for you.

Ashlin's sunrise in the German Alps

Romans 8:6-11

It should be simple. Because our human existence is temporary according to what we, as humans consider time and existence, why is it considered enough to do all we can to maintain our fleshly lives? Do we not believe that our spiritual lives are more important? We live as though we do not.
Paul, in these verses, seems to be pleading to his Roman followers to believe that our fleshly lives mean nothing if we do not also have the spirit of God within us for that is what gives us life beyond our current human existence. The good news is that we should and can have both flesh and spirit now as we go about our daily lives as Christians. This is what Christians believe is meant by God’s grace. We have existences in both flesh and spirit, and we are given this as a gift without any strings attached. How blessed we are!
Paul is not telling us to ignore our physical human needs. However, since we will exist in spirit after our hearts no longer beat, we should cling to this miraculous gift of grace with gratitude. He says we should not think only of maintaining our human existence but to go farther and believe that we will exist in spirit with all existence after our time on earth has ended. I think Paul is begging the Romans to teach this to others so that they too believe that we will always be. If we can comprehend this, we will lead more Godly lives as humans. This means we will be kinder to others and more generous to the poor. We will be more accepting of our and others’ deficiencies that can cause us, as everyday human Christians to live sad and useless lives. Paul is begging us also, and we should respond.

Ceramic tiles from handmade mold by Christina Carlisle

John 11:1-45

My idea of “roughing it,” to quote a friend of mine, is having to leave the hotel room to get ice. When my husband declared his dream of taking a trip to Antarctica this January and secured reservations for us, I suffered a recurring nightmare in the weeks leading up to our trip, of rough seas in the notorious Drake Passage (the “Drake shake”) and challenging hikes on rocky and icy terrain
far from medical services in case of any accidents that my creative
imagination envisioned.
It turned out that one of the most dangerous activities on the actual trip was getting into and out of Zodiac boats at the back of the ship, particularly when the seas were rough (that is, most of the time). Before we actually took the first step onto a Zodiac, we were trained in an important safety procedure: grip one crewman’s forearm with one hand, and another
crewman’s forearm with the other hand, while they gripped our forearms, as we stepped from the ship onto the Zodiac. Since we had an average of two Zodiac rides every day we were in Antarctica, I had a lot of practice.
On my first few rides, I literally held my breath–determined to do it–and breathed a sigh of relief when I made it in or out of the boat successfully. I finally learned to trust the crewmen (and myself!) to do this task well every time, noticing that a third crewman grabbed the back of each traveler’s life preserver just to be sure no one fell into the water. They weren’t going to lose any of us!
The story of Lazarus has special poignancy for me right now. I lost a good friend to cancer a few days after returning home from Antarctica. I am in another wilderness. I am asking myself, is it once again a matter of trust?

by Kate Knight, age 15

Palm Sunday

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.” This is the first and penultimate line in Psalm 118. The psalm discusses giving thanks and/or praising God seven separate times. How should we read the phrase “Give thanks to the Lord”? Is this a recommendation (i.e., “it is good to give thanks to the Lord”), or is it a command?
I read recently about research in positive psychology examining the effect of gratitude on happiness. While it is possible that feeling happy leads to feeling more grateful, these studies suggest a reverse effect such that the act of giving thanks can improve a person’s overall happiness. In one study, participants were randomly assigned into two groups. One group was asked on a weekly basis to write about things that they were grateful for, while the other was asked to write about things that irritated them that week. After 10 weeks, the “gratitude” group was scored as being more optimistic and feeling better about their lives.
We can get trapped in negative patterns of thought, but these and other studies on gratitude suggest that giving thanks is a way to change these patterns. It seems that we are actually “wired” to give thanks. That we are made by God to give thanks. It strikes me, then, that the phrase “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,” is not just something that we should do because God is great, but something that we must do in order to be who God intends us to be.
We live in a society that very often focuses on the negative. What’s wrong, and who is to blame? This, combined with the busy-ness and stress of daily life, can make us forget all the good things we have in our lives. But we must not forget to be grateful. Not just feel grateful, but be grateful. Give thanks. We can express our gratitude not only to God for all the gifts he has given us, but we can express our gratitude to our friends, our co-workers, our neighbors, and our family. It may sound trite, but count your blessings, and give thanks to the Lord for them! It could make you happier.

by Caroline Wheeler, age 8

Matthew 2:1-11

We’ve heard this passage many times. We celebrate and reenact it every year on Palm Sunday. Jesus enters Jerusalem for Passover, fulfilling an old prophecy as He rides on a donkey with cloaks and branches laid down in the road like a red carpet. So much of Jesus’ life was humble and the subsequent days will be harrowing, but in this moment Jesus is treated like the King He is. He is greeted by a large crowd shouting praise and blessings, they have hope that He can deliver them from their trials. Hosanna became a cry of adoration and praise, but it’s origin for the Hebrew people was a cry to “save,” to bring deliverance.
The image of palm leaves carpeting the ground makes me think of the way that New Orleans looks as the japanese magnolias and crepe myrtles drop their buds in the spring. All of those blooms lining the sidewalks make ordinary moments feel more extraordinary.
As you walk through your neighborhood or drive down the road, notice those moments of beauty and shout your “hosannas” to God. Where do you need deliverance in your own life? Where do you need to be reminded that God has already entered in and walks alongside you? As we celebrate Palm Sunday may we be reminded that we worship a God who fulfills his promises and is worthy to be praised.

"Japanese Magnolia" by Steven Blackmon

Holy Week/Easter

Jeremiah 31:1-6

Our Lenten journey began with dust – remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return – and it ends with dirt. It is all too easy in our celebrations to forget the earthiness and mess of Easter with our crisp white linen, bright clean florals, brass instruments, and spring sunshine. In reality we often encounter the newness of life promised in Jesus Christ’s resurrection with the dirt and mess of the wilderness still clinging to us, with the proof and the scars of our journey, as we find healing and wholeness.
Pastor and Author, Nadia Bolz-Webber says this of the “mess of new life.” “When Mary Magdalene stood at the tomb she didn’t encounter some perfected radiant glowing spiritual Jesus that first Easter morning. Seriously, no offense to gardeners, but Jesus couldn’t have been looking all that spiffy and impressive if she mistook him for a gardener. And I like to think that Mary Magdalene mistook the resurrected Christ for a gardener because Jesus still had the dirt from his own tomb under his nails… God is about making you new. And new doesn’t always look perfect, with a fabulous new dress, because like the Easter story itself, new can be messy.”
On Easter, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we celebrate the ultimate display of God’s everlasting love for all of creation - a love that was poured out in blood on the cross, a love that went to hell and back, a love that could not be contained by even death. So today and everyday in whatever wilderness we are navigating, whether illness or injury, fractured relationship, or the stresses of life, we can be assured of grace and of new life, however messy.

Prayer: God of everlasting love, we thank you for journeying with us in the wilderness. Open our eyes to signs of grace, signs of your kingdom breaking into our world, signs of building and planting and newness of life even in the mess of our lives. Allow each of us in our varied circumstances to feel once again, on this holy day, the joy of Easter. Amen.

"Jesus Wept" by Ellen Hinson, 2003, age 15

-Bolz-Webber, Nadia. “A Reflection on Easter: Beyond Chocolate and New Bedding to the True Gospel.” Sojourners. April 11, 2011.

Psalm 114

Psalm 114 tells of God’s wonders. The scripture talks of God delivering Israel from Egypt. He has moved mountains and has parted seas. God has done incredibly BIG things. He provided for his people in need. We’ve all had family, and friends (and maybe even ourselves) who vent about a struggle they are having who then say, “but there are people truly suffering in this world”. Most of us aren’t trying to free a foreign land or survive a monumental drought or famine and our daily worries can often feel “small”. But God has not set out just to solve the big problems of our world. While we might think our problems seem small and maybe to an extent they are, we can rest assured that we are all God’s children, and he knows our world has struggles of all sizes. We can turn to God through all struggles - big and small. Whatever our worries or the struggles we face we can rely on God’s listening ear. No problem big or small is beyond the purview of our God. We know that God has numbered the hairs on our head and knows us better than we know ourselves.
He also sets great miracles upon our world. With these truths we know that God has considered even the smallest details in our lives. If God has the desire to know all the intricate details of each of his children and he can do great things such as to deliver his people from Egypt, then surely God is with us through all and desires us to come to him with all worries and triumphs alike.
As we go out into the world, I hope we will speak to God about all our worries and struggles.

Ceramic tiles from handmade mold, Christina Carlisle

Romans 6:3-11

I confess that I struggle with the scripture passage assigned to me (Romans 6: 3-11), which begins with Paul asking, “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” No, Paul, I don’t know that, or at least I don’t understand it. I watch innocent babies getting baptized, whose lives have barely begun, and wonder if we are really supposed to believe that they are “dying” to their old, sinful selves before our very eyes. Even admitting that Paul did not have infant baptism in mind, I don’t get it.
Puzzled, I asked myself when in my own life Baptism took on special meaning. My thoughts went straight to what was the closest I’ve ever come to a Wilderness Experience. It was the year between undergraduate and graduate school, and I was in Poitiers France, where I had a fellowship to do research for which I felt unprepared. It was my first time outside the U.S. I knew no one. I was in an unfamiliar place, and afraid that, with my poor eyesight and even poorer sense of direction, I would never find my way around.
Then, looking out the window of my dormitory room on that first afternoon in the town, I spotted a nearby building unlike any I had seen before. I decided that it would be my landmark. As I soon learned, it was the Baptistery of St John, which, dating from the 4th century, is reputed to be the oldest existing Christian building in the West. The baptismal tank was added in the 6th century. Frescoes from the 10th century adorn the walls. The Baptistery served me well while I was in Poitiers. It was a guidepost, both geographically and spiritually: a constant reminder that I was not lost, I belonged.
Now, as I survey the interior of the Baptistery with my mind’s eye, I notice the two frescoes on the upper wall above the baptismal tank: one depicting Christ’s Ascension, the other, Christ in Glory. For me, they signify that, in our Baptism, the resurrected Christ is over us, welcoming us into the community of baptized believers of all ages, past and present, young and old. These images of the Risen Christ reassure me that I do not have to worry about the “dying” part.
What does Baptism mean to you?

by Reed Smith, age 5

Matthew 28:1-10

Light is a symbolic theme throughout scripture. In Genesis, God said “Let there be Light.” and separated the light from the darkness. In Exodus, God led the Israelites through the wilderness with a pillar of fire to give them Light. John gives us a deeper peak into the implications of this symbol. He opens his Gospel saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” He is not just connecting Jesus’ life to the beginning, but also the end, foreshadowing His resurrection.
Light is often connected to God’s power and majesty. The angel at the tomb’s appearance was like lightning, the brightest light possible. Light can be blinding, disorienting, and even overwhelming, especially when it pierces darkness. That kind of sudden bright light can be scary, as it was for the guards who trembled before the angel. Darkness is a different kind of scary; but it’s important to remember, even though we experience darkness, it is just a mirage...a non-thing. Darkness is just a word we use to describe the absence of light. In contrast, light is many things. It’s energy, a wave, and a particle. It’s one of the most illuminating phenomena we can observe in our natural world. The moment light enters darkness, it dispells that darkness and coats everything it touches. When God said “Let there be light” and when the pillar of fire lit up the desert night sky, it was a symbol of hope as it cast out the darkness. As Mary and Mary visited the tomb of the man they had followed and believed to be God in the flesh, they were in the darkest of times, fearful and without hope. In that dark moment, heralded by the angel, the Light of the world arrives and says “Greetings, do not be afraid.” He pierces the darkness and brings hope to all He touches. Jesus’ resurrection is the fulfillment of John’s statement, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Are you experiencing darkness? Struggling for hope? Fearful? Jesus, the Light of the world, will not forsake you. He shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome Him. Do not be afraid. Look to His light to illuminate your hope and lead you to carry that light to the world around you.

by Stan L'Hoste