Tuesday, March 29, 2011


The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;

he leads me beside still waters;

he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths

for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,

I fear no evil;

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff—

they comfort me. (Psalm 23:1-4)

If anyone is actually reading this, you may have noticed that – in spite of my Lenten resolution to post devotionally each week – last week’s post wasn’t put up until this week. I failed.

“Oh, that’s okay, Brian,” people might say. “No one is perfect.” “We all make mistakes.” “Don’t be so hard on yourself.” These sayings are heartfelt, comforting, and completely beside the point. I failed. I said I was going to do something and I didn’t. As a part of my journey through Lent, I felt called to reflect once weekly about some small thing that God was saying to me through Scriptures and I couldn’t get it done on time. And I don’t even have an excuse. I simply didn’t manage my time very well and, although I got started on it last week, I didn’t get it done until this week. Mission not-accomplished; there’s just no way around it.

Frankly, it reminds me of a lot of other Lenten resolutions I’ve failed at in my life. In fact, there seems to be a reoccurring theme: I begin Lent with great and pious resolve to do something or fast from something and then fail at it part-way through. It makes me wonder if, maybe, that’s part of the point. Not that failure ought to be the goal of this kind of pilgrimage, but perhaps it should be at least expected. It seems a bit self-defeatist, but maybe I should have entered into Lent with some sort of plan in place for how I ought to respond when I (inevitably) fall short of my goal. Perhaps a sealed envelope with the words “TO BE OPENED IN CASE OF FAILURE” written on it and “All fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23)” written inside. You know, something to help me remember that this kind of thing happens in life and that I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. Or better yet, I should have Psalm 23 waiting for me.

In Psalm 23, the psalmist describes God as our shepherd… making us the sheep. We are these beloved, adorable, furry sheep who are also vulnerable, disobedient, and not bright enough to find our own food and water. If God is our shepherd it’s because we need a shepherd. At least spiritually speaking, we need someone who loves us enough to faithfully lead us where we may not always want to go on our own. And in my shortcomings, rather than feeling guilty or disregarding my failings as simply part of life, perhaps it would be better for me to use these failings as a reminder of the Shepherd who restores my soul and returns me to right paths. May we continue to find our Good Shepherd throughout our Lenten journey… even when we fail at it.


So Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:5-10, NRSV)

Early in the week a coffee maker broke. I set it up to make a pot, and nothing happened: it didn’t gurgle; it didn’t steam up; it didn’t even get warm. Nothing. Now before you get worried about me, please note that we have several coffee pots at the church. I survived just fine.

But I didn’t want to be overly rash and just throw it out. I’ve made the mistake of throwing things away prematurely before (see “Moving Part 2”) so, although I’m far from being a packrat, I now pause for a bit before heading for the trash. So I left it on the counter in the hope that there might be some simple fix that someone handier than I might find. But, because I just left it on the counter and didn’t want anyone trying to make coffee with a broken coffee maker, I labeled it: “Broken.”

I immediately felt guilty for the label. I know that the coffee maker doesn’t care and would be just as happy if I threw it in the trash. But I’ve been labeled “broken” before. I know what happens with these labels: we may disregard them for a while, but they do eventually change the ways we see ourselves. Even beyond what might actually be true about a person, I think if you call them “broken” long enough they will begin to believe it at some point. Soon, we will wear these labels like nametags.

There are a lot of labels flying around in the Gospel lesson for the 3rd Sunday of Lent. Some of them are spoken: labels like “Jew,” “Samaritan,” “Messiah,” and “Living Water.” Some of them are not spoken because they’re not appropriate for polite company. The woman Jesus meets knows these labels. They define her. She presumably comes to draw water in the heat of the day because her presence would cause offence at a more common hour. Her labels shape who she is and even how she lives.

But Jesus doesn’t seem to notice her labels. He doesn’t seem to see what others see. He talks to her like he is supposed to be talking to her and not as someone labeled with “Samaritan,” “woman,” or “sinner.” And it strikes me that there is a labeling in this act as well, although I’m not sure what that new label might say. Perhaps it would say “child of God,” or “forgiven,” or maybe this conversation is Jesus’ way of offering her the label of “true worshiper.”

Whatever you’d call this new label it’s wonderful. It is wonderful because it is truer than all those other labels. It’s wonderful because it is the Maker’s label that was meant to be on us since the day we were born and will remain with us forever. The labels Jesus puts on us aren’t just some hopeful description of who we are meant to be, but who we truly are in him: labels like “redeemed,” “beloved,” and “called.”

As we continue through this Lenten journey, let us seek to remove those other labels from ourselves and one another. Let us be named by Jesus alone and let us live into the wonderful labels he gives us.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Reflection for the Second Week of Lent

Jesus answered Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to Jesus, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:3-4 NRSV)

Before I became a father, men who had traveled the parenting road before me described the birthing process as “magical.” I now know what they meant. You see, “magical” is a euphemism. It’s a kind of code they used because, if they had described it for what it was, I might have been scared off. Don’t get me wrong, “magical” is the perfect word to describe it. “Magical” is so spot-on because it only tells the soon-to-be father that it’s important, perhaps even holy. And anything else about the event that could be described probably shouldn’t be. It’s a way of saying, “Be there; be ready for the mysterious; don’t run away; and you’ll figure out the rest as you go.”

And I suppose, if the newly-born had the capacity to understand those trembling fathers’ words, “magical” might well describe all of the baby’s following days as well. The rest of our days can be pretty “magical” too, if you think about it. Of course, we don’t like to think about it, do we? We like to think that tomorrow will be much like yesterday, and today will hold no surprises. We like to think that the rain that falls from the sky only brings life and pretty flowers. We like to think that the earth beneath our feet is there to stay. We like to think that our days of being born – with all their terror, pain, and ugliness – are far behind us. But some days are “magical.” Some days, the skies take whole towns from our maps. Some days, the earth on which we are “grounded” flings us into the air like a marble on a fluffed-up sheet. Some days, we get born all over again.

When Nicodemus goes to visit Jesus under the cover of night, we get the impression that he’s testing Jesus’ kingdom out – not unlike the way we might dip a toe into a pool before going for a swim. He seems attracted to what Jesus has to offer, but he wants to approach it in a safe way. But it’s not safe. In fact it’s full-blown “magical.” One does not take a quick dip into the kingdom of God; one is born anew into it. Born like people are born: into a life of uncertainty and messiness.

For those of us who have chosen to live in Jesus’ kingdom, we must remember that it holds no promises for success, prosperity, or even safety; but it is the promise of life. We are born into a life that, although abundant and eternal, is also “magical.” So let us greet this new-born life in the spirit with which we entered into the old one: be there; be ready for the mysterious; don’t run away; and you’ll figure out the rest (by God’s Spirit) as you go.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Reflection for the First Week of Lent

So I'm cheating a bit with my first Lenten reflection, as the article below is from the latest Calvary Quarterly. But unlike a newsletter, a blog gives us an opportunity to offer feedback. I look forward to hearing from you.

I think Lent is generally self-serving. I said it.

Now, if you're wondering how I might come to describe Lent—a season beginning in ashes and “celebrated” by fasting—as self-serving, just hear me out: Lent, the “40 day” season that leads us to Easter, is often seen in the light of Easter. I mean, that's a difficult light to ignore. After all, Easter is the central celebration of our faith. The Resurrection changes everything: every moment, every interaction, every single thing we do is now seen through the lens of Resurrection. It would be ridiculous to expect that we could somehow set this lens aside for over a month. For the follower of Jesus, the Resurrection is impossible to ignore; Jesus emerging from the tomb on Easter morning changes everything... for US.

And rightly so! Don't get me wrong, the resurrection should shape every aspect of our lives. The Apostle Paul writes, “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (1 Corinthians 6:4); out of his resurrected life, we now begin ours. That is life-changing good news for us. Because we have received this impossibly wonderful gift, what else could we do but live gratitude-filled lives into eternity?

And so, during Lent, we seek to reshape those lives. We seek, through self-reflection and self-sacrifice, to let God reshape our-selves into the God-serving creations that Jesus died and rose to create. And there is a lot of “self” in that; although not at all in a bad way. The end result is to make us into God-serving creatures, but to get there the “self” needs some work. Which is what makes Lent so self-serving: we are striving to be those God-centered people of Resurrection, so we use this time to do what we can to become those people.

But here's the thing: when we mentally skip ahead to what those people are supposed to be like, what do we see? We see a people who have become more and more like Jesus, don’t we? We see a people who not only act like he did, but are actually like him. We see a people who have his understanding of how the world is supposed to be; a people who share his priorities and passions; a people who love as he loved and for the same reasons. And if we know what we’re supposed to be like at the end of Lent, why not seek to begin it with that same Christ-like perspective? In other words, we know that Jesus endured the hardships that he did for the sake of others. We know that our lives are meant to take on that same devotion to others. And so, as we “endure” the solemn sacrifices and disciplines of Lent, what if we could focus our attention on someone other than ourselves?

For example, you know how the Resurrection is life-changing good news for us? Well, if becoming more Christ-like means having his same devotion to others, are we not struck by the notion that there are people in our lives every day that don’t know that news; people who don’t have the same perspective-changing joy that we have; there are people all around us every day who, though Jesus rose for them as well, do not share our Easter perspective.

And so, however you “celebrate” Lent—whatever disciplines, fasts, or acts of charity that you employ that God might mold you—may we also let those “hardships” turn our attention toward others. May we indeed better know the heart and mind of God, and in that knowledge, yearn to share the Easter joy with the world.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Another Good Question

Here's the other email conversation I've had, this time from Chantel. Like many of us, Lent was not an observed celebration in her upbringing, so she asks:

I have a few questions I was hoping you could answer for me on Lent. I work with someone, who is a devout Mormon. We are always talking about religion on the playground for some reason. Anyway, I was talking to her today about Lent and what it means to me as a Christian and specifically as a Presbyterian and I realized I don't understand Ash Wednesday and the meaning behind it. She couldn't explain the Mormon's point of view too well either so I told her to ask at her church and I would ask you. Since I started so late in life believing in Jesus and his word I feel very behind on a lot of things and feel like I have so much to learn and try to understand about the Bible and Christianity. I would appreciate any help you may have time to give to me! Thank you very much and have a beautiful day!

So I responded:

Lent is kind of an odd practice. It began as an observance in the Catholic Church, but many Protestant churches have brought it back in the hope of finding new meanings to old practices. Like Advent before Christmas, it is meant to be a season of preparation. It begins, of course, on Ash Wednesday and concludes on or the night before Easter. That period is considered "40 days," but if you are good at math you'll note that it's more than that; technically it's only 40 days if you take out the Sundays (I said it was an odd practice).

The "40" in the 40 days finds significance in several places in Scripture. For example:

  • Number of days that Noah and his family endured the flood (see Genesis 7)
  • Number of years the Israelites endured the wilderness (see Numbers 14:34-35)
  • Number of days that Jesus endured temptation in the wilderness (see Matthew 4:1-11)

When something happens in the Bible that involves the number 40, it seems that God is trying us somehow; the people of God endure something and are better for it in the end. So for 40 days before Easter, we seek a period of testing and growth. When Jesus did it, it involved a 40 day fast (not recommended) so many have traditionally included fasting as a Lenten practice. By the way, that's why we take out the Sundays: we've given ourselves a "day off" per week to enjoy whatever we've given up. I think that's kind of silly.

Of course we Protestants like to find new meanings so, rather than giving up a thing for Lent, some have taken on practices to enhance their Lenten journey. Things like service, study, worship, etc. (if you're interested in exploring various spiritual practices, I'd recommend "Celebration of Discipline" by Richard Foster).

But to the heart of your question, Ash Wednesday: first, although I can't speak to the meaning a Mormon might find in it, I would assume that it's similar to what we might find. However, it is a deeply symbolic service and as such, the symbolism can mean a variety of things to a variety of people.

To do it properly, the ashes in Ash Wednesday come from the burnt palm leaves of the previous year's Palm Sunday. In other words, the palms that we waved to hail Jesus as our God-sent king, have become merely ashes. There is a cycle-of-life message that weighs heavy in this service. When the ashes are put on one's forehead, the pastor/priest quotes Genesis 3:19: "You are dust and to dust you will return." By the way, that's not a very nice thing to have to say to people you care about. But I think it's meant to draw us to consider throughout Lent, where we would be without Easter. We remember our sinful state and the death it brings so that we might appreciate all the more the abundant life we find on Easter morning. I have other thoughts on some less traditional Lenten ideas, but I'm putting them in my Quarterly article, so you can read it there.

I appreciate your questions and your journey and I too would love to sit down and chat with you more about these things. Don't worry so much about not understanding everything the Bible has to teach us; at its core, Christianity is simply about following Jesus. And following means simply being in relationship with him and letting that relationship transform you. And sharing it is simply introducing another to a friend.

If you have a similar thought-provoking question, I'd love to hear it. I will always ask before I post your question and I can always keep you anonymous if you'd prefer.

Friday, March 4, 2011

A Question About Prayer

Hey All, remember me? Things have been a little hectic since my last post (in September). I put up this blog as a way of talking about the work of the church in Bayfield (and beyond, I suppose). And although I think a lot about the work Christ calls us to do here, I regret that I don't write about it as much as I'd like to. (As a Lenten discipline, I plan to post something every week and I hope it becomes a habit.)

That being said, I have recently had some interesting questions posed to me via email. After thinking through and writing out my responses, it occurred to me that they kind of sounded like the stuff I ought to be posting on my blog.

So here's the first. It comes from Lisa S. (with contribution from her husband Jim). Lisa writes:
Pastor Brian, I have a question I have been pondering over for a number of years. Bear with me as I try to find the missing piece to this puzzle. The bottom line to the question is … Does the greater number of people praying for a situation affect the overall outcome? It seems like the answer should automatically be yes, but should it? What started me on my road of confusion was a comment a well known Christian man made a number of years ago when his wife was ailing from cancer. He didn’t understand how his wife, receiving hundreds if not thousands of prayers, should receive more blessings than someone else in a similar situation, but not as fortunate to have fame and notoriety. Does someone who receives more prayers get more comfort from God? So does the individual who knows only a few people and also has cancer receive less comfort? We pray to God for his will to be done, but does he change the direction of his healing because 100,000 people are praying for this individual as oppose to one? I don’t believe it for a second. Is the power of prayer the same if one person is praying or 100?

We have prayer chains. Does it help to have 5 or 50? If I thought numbers made a difference I would place an ad in the Wall Street Journal asking for prayers. If the actual number of people praying doesn’t matter than I can’t help but come to the conclusion that it isn’t about numbers. I believe in the power of prayer. Great miracles happen through prayer. It’s an expression of ones heart. Putting your troubles at Gods feet is what we as Christians do. God asks us to pray to him for the blessings we have received in our lives and those who are in need. When we pray for someone in need we too are the ones receiving blessings.

So it is not about numbers. So when we ask for prayers it’s an invitation for the individuals who are praying to be blessed and to have a relationship with God. So the prayee gets the blessing. But how does the individual in need get the blessing from God when numbers don’t matter?
I feel like I going in circles.
So I wrote:
Lisa, the questions you raise about prayer are not uncommon. I think these questions about prayer are so often asked because they are also so difficult to answer definitively. We are not God and so we're not able to fully explain why God does what God does. What troubles me most about prayer--especially about prayer for someone's healing--is that sometimes miracles do happen. Kyra is actually a good example of this: when Sherry was pregnant with Kyra, her water broke at about 19 weeks. The doctor said that nothing could be done: the amniotic sack does not heal up so the baby would eventually miscarry; so the best course of action would be to induce labor before an infection could set in. On the day of the procedure, Sherry wasn't ready. She told the doctor that they could do it at the first sign of infection, but she just couldn't do it. Meanwhile, church friends and family around the world were praying for Sherry and the baby. And as the days went by, the sack did indeed heal back up (a feat the doctor could not find other examples of) and you've met the evidence of what eventually happened.

Now comes the complicated part: explaining why this happened. To the godless, I suppose it could be rightly stated that the natural world is vastly more complex than we suppose. But it's not so simple for us. We know the privilege of a personal relationship with the God of all creation. We see that same Creator's hand in events like this... what we can't always see is why. Why did God spare my baby? Babies die in the womb all the time; why this one? Was it because so many were fervently praying for her? Maybe. Maybe it was the earnest, heartfelt nature of their prayers. For that matter, what if it were my prayers? What if God was waiting on me to finally surrender and leave everything, even my children, at the feet of God? But in the end, these are not questions I can know the answers to; and for me, that's kind of the conclusion I've come to.

For me, prayer isn't about bending God's will to conform to mine, it's about yielding my will to God's. I know that when two or more are gathered in our Savior's name, he is present in a unique way. That doesn't mean he is not present when I am alone or that he is super-present when I'm praying with a stadium filled with his followers either. It doesn't guarantee the answer to prayer that I may have been hoping for, but it is the promise of presence. I think you're absolutely right: we need prayer because God uses prayer to be present with us, if only through the comforting presence of the one-or-more kneeling next to us on our behalf.

Why do we pray for the needs of others? Because God is present with them when we do. Oh, and because sometimes miracles happen; sometimes prayer fixes our gaze on something just long enough to see the impossible made possible. But for me that's just the icing.
Lisa's response:
Excellent. This is what I was getting close to figuring out, but couldn’t grasp it. Like you said “we need prayer because God uses prayer to be present with us, if only through the comforting presence of the one-or-more kneeling next to us on our behalf”. I will reread your response in days to come and let it sink in. I will probably have more questions for you. I like the way you are able to tie it all together.

What a wonderful story of lil Kyra and how she is your miracle baby. It warmed my heart.
Then Jim chimed in with:
Great question, and great thoughts on the subject of prayer. I think, as with so many examples of Gods work, prayer is a multifaceted gem with many benefits for all involved. Probably one of the most poignant, and well worth mentioning is that after the “fall of man” God abandoned this world and gave it over to Satan. Instead of God walking with man in the cool of the evening in the garden we are called to wait on the Holy Spirit.

God still desires relationship with his people, but I think it’s like when we go onto someone’s property we generally prefer to either be invited or ask to come on to it. Although we would be capable, if we wanted to, just to trespass and barge on. I think God deeply desires relationship with his people and finds it very pleasing to be invited.

Even though there are so many more facets of this gem to be explored I think that this aspect is one that has great significance in our walk.
Please feel free to throw in your $.02 as well in the comments section. I'd love to hear from more of you on this.