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Lenten Devotional

Filed under: Religion & Faith
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April

April 1 - Easter

Psalm 23 contains phrases we have long associated with a song of death and trust, but mostly funerals; “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” and yet Psalm 24 follows close behind, an affirmation of the deeper truth. Psalm 24 speaks to the soul, and in the dawn, awakens. Resurrection.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for He has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers. Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in His holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation. Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Selah. Lift up your heads, O gates and be lifted up, O ancient doors that the King of glory may come in. Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O gates and be lifted up, O ancient doors that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, He is the King of glory. Selah  -- Psalm 24, NIV

The Exchange

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it;
I am the Lord’s, and those I love, this ground on which I stand and all that exists.

for he has founded it on the seas and established it on the rivers.
“He” indeed. The waters of creation flow and rush and hold, connecting.

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in His holy place?
Who can even approach God? Dare I hope to belong here?

Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.
But, I have been cast out, cast aside, castigated. Is it possible for me to be accepted?

They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation.
Even me?

Such is the company of those who seek Him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Rest.
I seek the face of God. I pray God seeks me.

Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up, O ancient doors that the King of glory may come in.
Open your eyes, look down no more -- prepare to be known, to belong.

Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle.
Who is this death-defyer?  It is the power of creation, of love victorious.

Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up, O ancient doors that the King of glory may come in.
Open your eyes, your arms. Lift your hands -- Christ enters and makes you acceptable exactly as you are.

Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, He is the King of glory. Rest.
You belong.  You are free. The God of creation has unmade death for you. Now live.

Live!

May Christ give you strength today.

Resurrected One, Thank You for my existence. Thank You for our connection. Thank You for renewed understanding. Thank You for accepting me, for pursuing me, for reminding me that I belong to You...and the world, just as I am. Amen

Reverend Marie Mainard O’Connell
Park Hill Presbyterian Church
North Little Rock, Arkansas

March 31

God, investigate my life; get all the facts firsthand. I’m an open book to you; even from a distance, you know what I’m thinking. You know when I leave and when I get back; I’m never out of your sight. You know everything I’m going to say before I start the first sentence. I look behind me and you’re there, then up ahead and you’re there, too— your reassuring presence, coming and going. This is too much, too wonderful— I can’t take it all in! Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit?  to be out of your sight? If I climb to the sky, you’re there! If I go underground, you’re there! If I flew on morning’s wings to the far western horizon, You’d find me in a minute You’re already there waiting! Then I said to myself, “Oh, God even sees me in the dark! At night I’m immersed in the light!” It’s a fact: darkness isn’t dark to you; night and day, darkness and light, they’re all the same to you. --Psalm 139:1-1

Even on this day, at this hour, You are here.

As a pastor, I’ve spent Lent telling my congregation to slow down, be contemplative, ask questions, seek silence, listen for answers. Meanwhile, I’ve been scrambling in preparation and writing and problem solving. There have been moments this week in which I’m not certain I could have told someone what color socks were on my feet.

And yet, You have known me. You have pursued me. You have been with me the whole time.

That is wonderful and comforting. That is terrifying and overwhelming. I need Your presence. I need to be seen and known and loved by You. But I also crave time to judge, to be callous and to fantasize about what it would be like if I ruled the world. I suppose You already knew that

It’s a bit much, this intimate knowledge, this persistence in loving me through my guilt and shame and fear, this standing with me when I’m wrong and this loving me when they’re wrong.

I know You know this about us. You know we can’t handle such perfect love. We like to mete out compassion and grace in ways that make You look ostentatious and naïve. You are not naïve; You knew this about us. You knew what You were getting into. You know how we will handle this.

We’ll bring on the shadows of night. We’ll reject Your presence and love. We’ll turn down Your invitation to know one another with grace. We’ll take Your radical inclusion and Your keen interest in whatever we push to the margins, and we’ll put a nail in all of it.

But what if the shadows of night cannot endure Your light?

Even on this day, at this hour, You are here.

Gracious God, help us understand our own complexity. Teach us to extend grace to those just as complex as us. Remind us we never surprise You. Keep loving us anyhow. Amen

Rev. Joe Genau
Edgewood Presbyterian Church
Birmingham, Alabama

March 30

Then the king will say to the godly people on his right, Come, God has great blessings for you. The kingdom God promised is now yours. It has been prepared for you since the world was made. It is yours because when I was hungry, you gave me food to eat. When I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. When I had no place to stay, you welcomed me into your home.When I was without clothes, you gave me something to wear. When I was sick, you cared for me. When I was in prison, you came to visit me. Then the godly people will answer, Lord, when did we see you hungry and give you food? When did we see you thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you with no place to stay and welcome you into our home? When did we see you without clothes and give you something to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and care for you? Then the king will answer, The truth is, anything you did for any of my people here, you also did for me.  --Matthew 25:34-40

By Easter 1987, I knew I could count on the Piggly Wiggly on Park Avenue in Hot Spring, Arkansas. They were the first store to leave food outside the dumpster for me. But, it was the Kroger out on Airport Road that had the best dumpster. You wouldn’t believe what they would throw away. I could feed so many people with that perfectly good food, especially on a holiday like Easter. I had gotten used to spending all my holidays the way I spent most of my days: driving around, bringing meals to my guys.

I was three years into my life’s work caring for people dying of AIDS. The average age of my guys was 21 or 22. They had no money for groceries. Most would have been homeless if I hadn’t helped them apply for housing,  or if I hadn’t found a spare bed for their last weeks or months. Many had cared for their dying best friends or boyfriends. But, now there was no one to take care of them. They had no choice but to come home to Arkansas --and to the families who  already wanted nothing to do with them. Like Jesus, these young men had been cast into the wilderness not for 40 days...for a lifetime.

I went to church every Sunday. There was a lot of talk about doing without at Lent. It usually meant chocolate. There was a lot of talk about Jesus telling us to help others. As he says in Matthew: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

But it was the “sinners”-- the gays and lesbians they had shamed and driven from home -- who modeled true grace. How many times did I assist  a man cleaning his dying beloved in the shower because he was too weak to stand? I watched as he bathed him, dried him, kept him warm, the whole time knowing that in weeks, months, it would be his turn. How many drag show fundraisers did I attend because the government was doing nothing to help fund care for the dying? How many times did I coach lesbians on administering medicines to their friends?

Blending our lives, sharing our pain, speaking our fears...that  was our Lent. It was a season of hopelessness, yet we created hope. We created love. We saw the value of discarded food and more so, of discarded people. When I give talks to predominantly gay audiences, I look out at these faces. All I can think is, “You had it right. All those time they told you you were wrong --starting from the moment you were born --you had it right.” I’m just grateful God declares them wrong. You are beautiful, you are valuable. You are beloved; you are cherished...just as you are.

Gracious God, we give thanks and praise that Your thoughts are not our thoughts; Your ways are not our ways. Teach us how to be more like You, to live like You and to love like You. Amen

Ruth Coker Burks
AIDS awareness Advocate and Activist
Bentonville, Arkansas

March 29

I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot; who can bring them to see what will be after them? -- Ephesians 3:18-22 NRSV

In this passage, the Hebrew word hevel, which means futile in this book is used more than times. The futility is meant as "mere breath" because both the wise and the foolish die. The author tries to we focus too much on hevel. Whether we are humans or animals, all will die. We should focus on our work.

Our work is more than employment. Our work is being there as a friend for others when they need someone to cry or laugh with. Our work is electing individuals who will stop marginalizing and start respecting individuals and communities. Our work is to build lasting relationships, the greatest of which is with God, the Creator.

Eventually there will be two dates on a tombstone and between them, a dash. One date is your birth, the other your death. The most significant, profound, lasting part of our lives is what happens in that dash. The author encourages us to make the most of the dash.

On this sacred night, we commemorate, the last time Jesus Christ, the son of God, fully man and fully divine, sat around a table, broke bread, ate, communed, laughed and enjoyed his relationship with the ones gathered, the supporters of his cause. That night, he knew one of his friends would betray him. He knew he would die a mortal death. He knew when he arose three days later, he will have conquered death. Rather than allow all that to envelop him, he focused on that moment only, spending precious time with friends.

Lady Gaga's, Born This Way, is a fundamental commentary on being LGBTQ and a person of faith. “I’m beautiful in my way ‘cause God makes no mistakes. I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way.” Regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, ability or literacy...whether you’ve been cast out, bullied or teased, love yourself. Rejoice. You were born this way. Focus on that. Let that become your hevel.

Gracious God, teach us to be still in Your presence that we may hear Your voice reminding us we were created just as we are to enjoy life and enjoy it with you. Amen

Andrew Caleb Pritt
Little Rock, Arkansas

March 28

Isaiah 11:6-8

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie with the kid, the calf with the lion… and a little child will lead them…”

My mother, Mary, grew up on a small farm, literally with a little lamb that would toddle alongside her. In my lifetime, people marveled at how easily and happily she connected with children; she’d simply say, “I speak baby.” I believe their voices were perfect to her, each unto themselves, and they responded in kind.

She and I bonded over how we “spoke animal,” too, delighting in them for themselves, respecting their natures, sanctity, and place. Quietly following in her path, patch by patch, my mother taught me gardening and building a place of gentleness and peace, where all things were welcome and safe, especially the little ones. Heaven was all around us: the sun, rain, and stars blooming in beautiful abundance at every step, human and animal sharing grace. Every turn of the trowel was a separate story and part of the whole of creation, and every breath a prayer.

“And the lion shall eat straw like the ox, the nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp...” 

Gandhi wrote, “To my mind, the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being. I should be unwilling to take the life of a lamb for the sake of the human body.” I stopped eating meat 20 years ago, recognizing its violence. People focus on what I gave up, but what I gained fills my soul as an expression of peace and an act of faith. In Hindu and Buddhist traditions, nonviolence toward all living things is called “Ahimsa,” another of so many beautiful parallels between the religions of our shared world.

As an agnostic, I feel honored to consider everyone’s religion equally beautiful. My heart tells me they are each perfect in their way, unique expressions of the whole, and divine in their differences. It seems paradoxical, but to me our individual uniqueness is what joins us, tells our shared story, and becomes a perfect paean of peace, unnamable because it is all-encompassing and forever becoming.

Thank you for this opportunity to revere Isaiah’s prophecy of peace with you and add my voice to your beautifully diverse chorus and divine work to embrace everyone’s unique identityas our path to peace for all life eternally. 

John Yarbrough
Little Rock, Arkansas

March 27

On November 11, 2017, it was my privilege to give the sermon at the wedding of the Rev. Amber Carswell, a priest of Cathedral, and Melissa Wilkinson. These are excerpts from that sermon. 

Melissa Kay Wilkinson and Amber Brooke Carswell

There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before. 

Willa Cather wrote that in her novel O Pioneers!

I love that epigram, even though it is an exaggeration. There are not only two or three human stories. There is only one. It is called “The Pursuit of Happiness.” “All people want to be happy,” said St. Augustine, “and none are happy who do not have what they want.” Our wants make for a long list, so the story is a thick book.

One subplot several times repeated in my lifetime is of peoples whose happiness was thwarted by laws of church, state, and social custom. Through brave effort against sometimes fierce resistance hearts, minds, laws and customs changed—not necessarily in that order. These changes prove that ours is still a land of pioneers.

Naming the obvious, you two most certainly are pioneers: women in love and one a priest–– among the first such marriages in history. I have seen you talk about that in a “Love Your Neighbor” video on YouTube. Melissa, you allow as how before you knew Amber religion had “not been on your radar.” Little did you imagine when you first met that in her it was coming at you like a stealth torpedo from a submarine.

Weddings consist of promises and prayers. The promises are Christ-like. “Melissa, do you offer yourself to Amber freely and unreservedly?” “Amber, will you live together with Melissa in faithfulness and holiness of life as long as you both shall live?” These promises are constellations by which you will navigate through life’s ups, downs, and plot twists. The prayers are for the Spirit’s wind in your sails. They will be answered yes. 

The Very Rev. Dr. Christoph Keller, III
Dean and Rector, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral

March 26

“Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.” -- Matthew 4:10-11, NIV

One of the most radical ideas of Christian theology is God became human in the person of Jesus. Jesus experienced human things: hunger, suffering, death and in this case, temptation. Often, we are taught temptation is about giving in to our more “humanly” desires, thus doing“bad” things. This concept of temptation has been used to hurt the LGBTQ community by urging them to resist the “temptation” of same gender, loving relationships. These views completely misunderstand the biblical view of temptation. Temptation is not about doing something we shouldn’t. Temptation is about doubting who God made us to be and God’s provision for us.

In Matthew, the devil tries to persuade Jesus to become someone other than the person God intends him to be. The devil tries to convince Jesus to put his trust in someone other than God for his provision. Many modern messages to LGBTQ Christians seek to do the same thing -- convince them to deny their true selves and trust God to supply all their needs. These messages embrace the voice of the devil in this story.

“There’s something wrong with you.” That’s the devil.

“Your sexuality is immoral.” That’s the devil.

“Your gender identity/expression is unnatural.” That’s the devil.

“You have to be something different for God to love you.” That’s the voice of the devil.

Let’s name temptation what it is. Temptation is anything that pushes you to doubt your deepest identity and God’s unconditional love for who you are. During this season of Lent, may we respond to all voices of temptation the same way Jesus did: “Away with you, Satan!”

Gracious God, by the power of Your Holy Spirit, strengthen us mind, body and soul to speak boldly to the voices that seek to draw us away from Your presence. Amen

R.G. Wilson-Lyons
First United Methodist Church
Birmingham, Alabama

March 25

The Inescapable God

Why do we celebrate Good Friday?
Why do we fetishize death annually?
Is it to hurry to Resurrection Sunday?
Is this Friday good?
Given Good Friday begins the Easter trilogy, what do we make of this particular day?

Good Friday is good for no one!

We remember Good Friday as the day Jesus cried out, alone on the Cross, abandoned.

It is the beginning of the end of Lent. It precedes the darkness of Holy Saturday. In the Christian tradition, it is a day of mourning, a day we are reminded of the inescapable God.

Psalm 139 helps us know deeply the reality of Emmanuel, God with us. It reflects on Advent when we wait for the Light of the World, Jesus, to be born. It signals the coming of a new day: revival, renewal, restoration, resurgence. We hold this complicated day of death-by-execution along the journey toward knowing the inescapability of God.

Even in the darkest moments of Good Friday, God is with us. Even as we witness state-sponsored violence, God does not escape the tragic tyranny of our now. This psalm privileges an all-knowing God. From a theological perspective, we need to know God is in all things. When we affirm God in all things, we privilege and attribute knowledge of all things to the Divine Source of all that is. Even in moments of death remembered today in memory of Jesus, we know God could have escaped this moment but chose not to.

Gracious God, it is good to know that wherever we are -- in darkness or in light or hell on earth -- You never choose to escape being present with us. Amen

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, PhD
Director of Public Theology Initiatives
Faith Matters Network
Nashville, Tennessee

March 24

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. -- Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 NRSV

I find little comfort in how this passage is utilized within the broader liturgy of American Christianity. It is either used to convey the message "everything happens for a reason," or "God never gives us more than we can bear." Though well meaning, these Hallmark card takes on scripture are not what I need to hear in the midst of emotional, physical or spiritual pain. Instead of offering words that placate or patronize; be present with me and remind me of Emmanuel, God with us.

In seasons of grief, do not try to rationalize with bumper sticker theology. Instead, let me know I am not alone. Cry with me. Wipe my tears.

In seasons of joy, do not minimize it with a #blessed. Help me rejoice and be glad.

When I am in the grip of depression, do not say, "This is God's will." Grab me by the shoulders. Look me in the eye. Say to me, "I will never leave you nor forsake you. There is light and hope still. Let me help you."

For every season there is an opportunity for one to be present and an opportunity for another to be vulnerable. This is a sacred cycle of give and take. We encounter God in these moments of holy kinship where we let compassion and trust flow freely. Presence is more meaningful than any card.

Gracious God, lead us along journeys that require us to be present with others. Lead us along journeys that require us to be vulnerable in front of others. Lead us along journeys that require us to seek Your face, so we will know which journey we walk and how best to respond. Amen

Katie S.
Jackson, Mississippi

March 23

I am a child of God, a woman, a wife, a mother, a stepmother, a friend, a retired lay professional, a pastor and a LGBTQ ally. Before my stepdaughter “came out” as Lesbian at the age of 15, I was more or less indifferent to gay people. In many families, such revelations can bring a myriad of emotions even estrangement. After her announcement, I am ashamed to confess that my husband and I initially considered it just a stage since she attended an all girls school...as though that were a plausible explanation! We feared for her future in ways we never considered before. However, our hearts were open to explore the reality of her sexual orientation with her.

To gain understanding and seek support, we attended PFLAG together. It was the beginning of a journey that brought me even nearer to the heart of God, where love for all abides. Fifteen years later, I became a pastor. I was appointed to the only reconciling, open and welcoming United Methodist Church in the state. Through those years of being spiritually formed, I had indeed become an ally, advocating for full inclusion of all “regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, life history, education, place of birth, and age” (quoted from this church’s mission statement).

Psalm 139 is a favorite of mine. Verses 13-14 read, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

We all know people who quote the Bible out of context. They cherry-pick certain passages to justify their condemnation of anyone not heterosexual. How can they miss the many passages that affirm God’s love and delight for diversity of creation? In Psalm 139, we discover an even more personal, intimate understanding of God’s delight in us. Fearfully and Wonderfully made. Amazing and Wonderful. Unique Creation. Wonderfully Complex. These are the various ways to interpret what the psalmist wants us to know about how remarkable and beloved he knows himself to be, about how remarkable and beloved God knows we were created to be. How affirming this passage for each us is in every aspect of our individual identities!

This Lenten season and especially in those seasons of doubt or despair, may we seek to join the psalmist and confidently proclaim, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made!”

Rev. Anita Dinwiddie (Retired)
Tyler, Texas

March 22

Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings forth chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise. --Isaiah 43:16-21 (NRSV)

We could use some good news.

As queer people, sometimes we feel like we are under continuous assault. Even in those holy places of refuge, where we find ourselves welcomed and included, the sensations of joy and relief remind us of the hostility waiting outside. We may have figured out how to navigate this world and survive day to day. But what kind of life is that? We yearn for the time when all of us will be recognized as human -- fully and truly human -- beloved children of the Most High. But sometimes it feels like we are in this all alone.

In this season of Lent, we have a huge advantage over those in Jesus’ day. We know how the story ends. We know that even as the religious leaders enlist the help of an empire to crush the revolutionary movement of Love, Love wins.

As forces of empire and supposed religious leaders conspire to strip away protections, turn others against us and send us running for cover in a closet, it can be hard to remember, but Love wins.

Isaiah reminds us that God’s people have come through terrible hardship before, but have never been abandoned nor forgotten. Before, it has seemed there was no hope, but over and over, Love wins.

Behold, God is doing a new thing. Do you not see it? A second question is implied: Why are you still acting like you don’t see it? It is easier to hang back, stay silent, keep our heads down. If no one listens to us, we can say it’s because they shut us out. It’s easier to stay small then blame others for keeping us small.

As beloved children of God, may we not only behold this new thing; may we move into it, claim our place in it and be truly part of God’s new thing in the world. Amen

Lynn Hopkins
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Montgomery
Montgomery, Alabama

March 21

May your roots go down deep into the soil of God’s marvelous love; and may you be able to feel and understand, as all God’s children should, how long, how wide, how deep, and how high [God’s] love really is; and to experience this love for yourselves, though it is so great that you will never see the end of it or fully know or understand it. And so at last you will be filled up with [God’s Self.]   -- Ephesians 3:17b-19, TLB

As a child I was raised in church and attended Sunday School. There I learned a song about how wide and deep the love of God is. I still remember it. “Deep and wide; deep and wide; there’s a fountain flowing deep and wide…” I even remember most of the hand motions that accompany the words. It was always a fun song to sing.

During that time in my life, it was easy to believe God loved me, and it was easy to have faith. I was a child. I was told God loved me, and I simply accepted it. Growing up, somehow that innocent, childlike faith was lost. For some of us whose innocence is taken harshly or abruptly, it can be even harder to regain our faith and believe in Christ’s love for us.

That love is still there; it never left you.

I have since chosen to believe in Christ’s love though I may not comprehend it. Some days it’s wonderful to bask in the warm glory of this deep love. Other days it’s difficult to feel it or believe the love is there. I struggle to understand how wide and deep this love can be. I wonder how God can love the people I deem unlovable because of their hateful actions. The love of God surpasses our understanding. Rather than trying to comprehend it, maybe I should learn to accept it.

I pray that you, too, can accept God’s love, feel it and know that it is there. I pray that you, “being rooted and established in love, may have power… to grasp…this love that surpasses knowledge…that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” because you are loved!  You. Are. Loved!

Especially in the darkest of moments when it is difficult to understand, remember these words: God is love, and YOU ARE LOVED! I pray you feel strengthened by the power of this love and do your best to share it with others. Amen

S. Alexandra Marshall, PhD
Little Rock, Arkansas

March 20

Two years after escaping slavery, Harriet Tubman returned to her husband, John. Not only was he uninterested in reconciliation, he was married to another woman. This did not slow down Harriet. She simply turned her attention to slaves who were ready. They risked their lives for freedom using the Underground Railroad.

Unlike Harriet who was constantly seeking to impact the living, the women in the Bible that Luke describes went looking for the dead.

Very early Sunday morning, the women came to the tomb where Jesus’ body was laid.They brought the sweet-smelling spices they had prepared. They saw that the heavy stone that covered the entrance had been rolled away. They went in, but they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. They did not understand this. While they were wondering about it, two men in shining clothes stood beside them. The women were very afraid. They bowed down with their faces to the ground. The men said to them, “Why are you looking for a living person here? This is a place for dead people. Jesus is not here. He has risen from death.”—Luke 24:1-6, ERV

We know where dead people are. We run into them at work, at church, in the grocery store, at Target, in the gym, even at our dinner table. No matter how hard we try, we cannot escape dead people. As a matter of fact our culture is fascinated with zombies; those who are dead but seem to be walking as part of the living.

Dead people are those among us who either cannot or will not accept the realities of this world. They refuse to believe some people are living a different experience based on skin color, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression or citizenship.

Dead people are those among us who think their personal interpretation of the Bible is more or as influential as the Constitution. These walking dead, zombie-like individuals believe women should not be free to make decisions about their own bodies. They believe it’s okay for the government to spend our tax dollars covering up sexual assault and harassment while denying health care to whole communities of women, men and children.

Yet, everybody isn’t dead. Since November 8, 2016, many people have been waking up to the injustices so many suffer. These are the people, who with some affirmation, can participate in organizing, mobilizing, funding and supporting. Harriet Tubman said, “I freed thousands of slaves, and could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves.” There are persons who never even considered about how their thoughts, actions and worldviews keep them and others in bondage. Everyone deserves the right to believe what they want to believe. That power should never be stripped from anyone. But, we won’t know what people believe until we ask.

May your days during Lent be spent extending countless invitations for conversation. “Why are you looking for a living person here? This is a place for dead people. Jesus is not here. He has risen from death.” And may your spirit guide you away from the places for dead people into the company of those who are alive and seeking justice for all. Amen

Rev. Maxine Allen
United Methodist

March 19

At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.” He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach  my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day -- for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem! “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” -- Luke 13:31-35 (NIV)

Sometimes we describe a person obsessively nurturing and protective of loved ones as a “mother hen.” That reminds me of a fable I heard as a child about a mother hen defending her chicks from the deceptions of a wily fox. When the fox tries to entice the hen to come down from her roost, the mother hen desperately herds her chicks under her wings for protection, yet bares her own unprotected breast. She knows the fox must kill her first before it can get to her chicks. Though she may die and her brood scatter aimlessly, they have a chance to survive the ravaging of the fox. Her strength is revealed through vulnerability and intentional love. In the end, the mother hen outwits the fox, and he is confounded. The moral of the story: Don’t mess with the chicks of a mother hen for they are loved...fiercely.

This is the image Jesus uses to describe God’s relationship with us. God’s vulnerable love for us is like a mother hen gathering her brood under her protective wings, safe from the ravages of the foxes of life: the politicians and religious bureaucrats Jesus encountered, that we encounter. Often we are unwilling to be gathered with “the other,” choosing to take our chances elsewhere. We think we are truly free of others, but we are even more at risk and vulnerable to the sly seductions of the foxes among us.

Yet, when it seems the destructive forces of our lives seek to prey upon us...when we grieve...when we are anxious or in despair...when we need the warmth of God’s accepting and healing presence, God’s love relentlessly desires to shelter us under its protective wings. There is strength in relationship. There is strength in love and vulnerability.

As God’s children, we are connected and saved by love. We are called to stretch out God’s arms of love and vulnerable strength, even to the foxes of the world, that all may be gathered in reach of God’s saving embrace.

This Lenten season, ask yourself: Will we gather under the shadow of God’s mothering wings? Will we be the mother hen that offers her body and blood for others? Under the wings of Christ, will we live in the vulnerable power of the Cross as we face a world full of foxes?

Gracious God, strengthen us for the journey toward liberation that lies ahead. Empower us to do whatever is necessary to free Your children, being reminded that You will protect us. Let this be our message to the foxes of this world: Don’t mess with the love of Mother Hen. Amen

Fr. Errol Montgomery
Lighthouse Community Church
Biloxi, Mississippi

March 18

And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them as any had need.  And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts. -- Acts 2: 44-46

Gathered around the dining table of the mission house in Pignon, Haiti, the little company of missionaries sat quietly as they gazed into the flickering light of a burning candle. One by one, they shared their experiences of the previous day. One had performed surgery on a critically ill man; another had fed a malnourished baby; still another had helped the women of the village with their sewing. Somehow, each one had felt connected to this impoverished land and its suffering people.

“This is my body broken for you. This is my blood poured out for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” I repeated our Lord’s words over the bread and wine as I passed the elements around the table for all to receive. Suddenly, tears began to flow -- and with those tears, the realization that while we were communing together inside the mission house, there were many others outside who would go to sleep hungry that night.

Gracious God, as we reflect on Your love for us and the bounty we have been privileged to receive, show us how to share our gifts freely with a hurt and dying world. Amen

Rev. Britt Skarda
Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church
Little Rock, Arkansas

March 17

This message is from the Lord. “I will put my teachings in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. People will not have to teach their neighbors and relatives to know the Lord, because all people, from the least important to the most important, will know me.” This message is from the Lord. Jeremiah 31:33b-34, ERV

All my life, it has bothered me when people use any variation of the phrase, “…even for the least of them.” Who is the least of them? The definition of the word least is smallest in significance. Which ones of us are smallest in significance? Poor people? Black people? Gay people? People who are Transgender?

I know no one is going to answer this question aloud. I’m sure people realize how awful any answer would taste. I imagine they would direct me to the Bible instead. And sure enough, the very Bible, God’s Holy Word, declares some of us are less important than others.

Well, the Bible is wrong; as it is often. Let me rephrase that. The writers of the Bible are wrong…often. Or are they?

Perhaps I’ve zoomed in on the wrong phrase, thereby missing the point of the text. What happens if I focus on these words instead, “People will not have to teach their neighbors and relatives to know the Lord, because all people will know [the Lord]”? That changes everything.

What would happen if the United States focused on these words? Everything would change. No longer would we argue over whose lives matter. They all would. No longer would we argue over who can marry. Anyone who wants to could. No longer would we argue over which people are welcome in this country. Everybody would be.

If people were free to make their own choices about their lives and others trusted their personal relationship with God, this world would be a better place…for everyone.

Gracious God, thank You for the level field on which You created us. And thank You for the unconditional love that reminds us of our true worth. Amen

I. Malik Saafir
Little Rock, Arkansas

March 16

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. -- Matthew 5:17

The Ten Commandments and the other laws found in the Pentateuch enabled the Israelites to become a united people as opposed to disconnected tribes. Now they were committed, not only to G_d, but also to each other in a settled society. Yet, the purpose of a law becomes lost when the particulars of that law become more important than the reason for the law’s creation.

In his book, What The Gospels Mean, Garry Wills comments on the meaning of a beatitude in relation to the Holiness Code: “Happy are those who are pure within.” Literally, ‘the pure in heart.’ This is contrasted with the Jewish Holiness Code that makes one unclean according to external things with which one deals. Jesus constantly broke through the taboos of the Holiness Code. Embracing every kind of unclean person -- Samaritan, leper, prostitute, menstruating women, tax collector.”

During Jesus’ ministry, the Pharisees observed the letter of the law scrupulously, but its intent was lost. In proclaiming the Beatitudes, the radical Jesus proclaims the root of the law, which was the creation of a holy we, a consecrated community. He was reintroducing what had become lost, thereby fulfilling the law.

The radical Jesus extends the invitation to a sacred intimacy with G_d that is crucial to the Sinai Covenant, an invitation the Israelites fearfully refused at Mount Sinai. The Israelites had a fear of coming into contact with G_d. A person could not see the face of G_d and live because one could never attain that level of holiness. Jesus proclaims intimacy with G_d is crucial to the Sinai Covenant.

During this season of Lent, ask yourself: How has my life brought me closer to that intimacy with G_d that has been extended to me since the days of Moses?

Gracious God, open my eyes that I may see the need to draw closer to You, thus drawing closer to all the ones created in Your image, the whole of Creation. Amen

Rosa Manriquez
Immaculate Heart of Mary
East Los Angeles, California

March 15

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace. -- Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (NIV)

Timing is everything.

“You have a 10 percent chance of conceiving, and if you get pregnant, a 90 percent chance of miscarrying.”

Not the news my then-husband and I wanted to hear. I was angry! I remained angry for several years -- angry at God, angry at my body, angry at my parenting peers.  

I’m in a different season now.

More than a decade later, I’m remarried. I have a wonderful wife. I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of childless living, and I feel confident in who I am. Occasionally, do I feel the twinge of loss not having kids? Yes. But somewhere along the way, I realized spending my energy trying to figure out why, WHY, WHY? brings little, if any, relief.

My mother died recently. I’m certain knowing the answer to “why” for her illness and death won’t suddenly cure my grief. I will be sad. Again... and again... and again, I will be sad. But I know accepting what is (infertility, loss of a loved one, not achieving a goal, experiencing a breakup) is not the same as liking it. Accepting is an act of faith, an acknowledgement that I’m not in control. I have no power to change things, except my response.

This passage promises a balanced life, times of loss and times of gain. I can acknowledge even when steeped in sorrow, I feel the sustaining love of God and the assurance God gives: hope that my life will have -- as it has had -- other seasons. The day will come when life happens, and it won’t be heart-wrenching.

It’s just a matter of time.

Gracious God, thank You for the power of Your sustaining love through hard times and the grace You give to help me prepare for the good ones. Thank You for healing me -- mind, body and spirit. Thank You for balance. Amen

Katie Eisenhower
Little Rock, Arkansas

March 14

“Christ has broken down the dividing wall…that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two…reconciling both groups to God through the cross.” -- Ephesians 2:14-19

These words from today’s passage in Ephesians sound a lot like what Paul said in Colossians 1:20, “Through Christ, God was pleased to reconcile to God’s self all things by making peace through the blood of the cross,” which is not unlike what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:19, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to God’s self;” words which remind us that, when the long Lenten journey is done, we will find ourselves, once again, gazing up at a cross with wingspan, the arms of Jesus stretched as wide as the world, reaching beyond every wall of division to embrace in grace the whole human family.

And, as followers of Jesus, our calling is to live as Jesus died; arms out as wide as the world, which may be at least a part of what it means to “take up our cross daily” to get up every morning and decide to assume the walls-down, arms-out posture of Jesus, to live a life with wingspan, to become a person whose embrace of others is as wide as the world, because our love is as liberal as God’s.

Rev. Chuck Poole
Northminster Baptist Church
Jackson, Mississippi

March 13

Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in trouble; my eyes are tired from so much crying;  I am completely worn out. I am exhausted by sorrow, and weeping has shortened my life. I am weak from all my troubles; even my bones are wasting away. All my enemies, and especially my neighbors, treat me with contempt. Those who know me are afraid of me; when they see me in the street, they run away. Everyone has forgotten me, as though I were dead; I am like something thrown away. I hear many enemies whispering; terror is all around me. They are making plans against me, plotting to kill me. But my trust is in you, O Lord; you are my God. I am always in your care; save me from my enemies, from those who persecute me. Look on your servant with kindness; save me in your constant love. -- Psalm 31:9-16 (GNT)

Relationships matter.  We all face challenges that seem unbearable, overwhelming, impossible to handle alone. In those times, just like the psalmist, many of us find ourselves pouring out our hearts to someone. The question is, do we choose God as our Listening Ear, our Advisor, or do we seek out friends and family? When burdens become too heavy, on whom do you call for help?

As much as we love our friends and families, there is nothing like the love of God. In our worst state, God has already poured out Agape -- unconditional and perfect love for us -- in and through Jesus Christ. When we need a Savior, we don’t have to Google our options or engage in social media therapy; we simply need to reach out to the One Who never leaves us nor forsakes us, the One Who has shown us unmerited favor, grace, mercy and love: the LORD, our God.

Because of our relationship with God, we know there is never a challenge too big for God to handle, not prejudice injustice, unfair legislation or exclusion.  When we think about the many ways God has shown us what a faithful relationship looks like, we can't help but admit we must work on being more faithful to God. No matter how rough the road...no matter how desolate and depressing our days, God has already given us The Road to redemption and deliverance, not for a day to come, but for today!  

We rejoice knowing in those moments of deep sadness and despair, when we feel all hope is gone, God is with us. God continues to lighten our paths, allowing us to pour out our souls while the LORD pours back into us the unspeakable joy that comes from being in a healthy relationship with God.  

Look back over your life. See your relationship with God filled with examples of immeasurable grace, mercy and steadfast love. We don't have to walk around feeling heavy, or burdened down by the weight of our faults and our mistakes. Because of our relationship with God, no matter who we are or what we may be going through, verse 14 should be our testimony: "But my trust is in you, O Lord; you are my God."

Gracious God, we give thanks for the unique relationship we have with You. Thank You for being the ever-present ear that hears us when we call out for peace, for help, for strength for mercy and for love, unconditional love. Amen

Rev. Anika T. Whitfield
Arkansas Poor People's Campaign
Little Rock

March 12

 Hosanna in the Heavens!

And people carpeted the road with their cloaks, while others spread brushwood, which they had cut in the fields; and those who went ahead and the others who came behind shouted, ‘Hosanna! Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessings on the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the heavens! -- Mark 11:8-10 (NEB)

We see the beginning of the final days of Jesus’ life. By this point in his ministry, many people follow him. In the crowd, there were varied understandings and expectations for Jesus. Most followed out of a deep sense of love and admiration, and what they had experienced of him. Some followed Jesus to Jerusalem out of a deep belief he would usher in the reign of God and overthrow the Romans, who were their oppressors.  

Many emotions flowed from the crowd the day Jesus mounted the colt to enter Jerusalem. Great excitement and jubilation were among those emotions. Along the road, people placed their cloaks; they spread brushwood in anticipation of a new leader. They shouted, Hosanna! It was a celebratory shout of thanks to God. They were jubilant. They just knew things would be different.

The next few days would turn out differently than the crowd anticipated. Their Messiah would die a horrible, agonizing death on a cross. No longer would they shout Hosanna! Instead, they would disperse in fear. They did not know their earlier shouts of Hosanna! were not wrong, just misplaced. Rather than a leader on a throne, a new reign ushered in. In Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, God showed the world the way the world should be. People are valued and respected simply because they were children of God. People are treated equitably because they were created in the image of God. There’s no room in the new order for hatred, violence or prejudice toward any human being.

Gracious God, during this season of Lent, help us remember daily -- in our actions and dealings with one another -- that we are all children of God, worthy of the greatest respect and love. Amen  

Rev. Stephen Copley
Interfaith Arkansas
Little Rock, Arkansas

March 11

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. -- Philippians 2:4 English Standard Version (ESV)

One day my 16-year-old daughter announced she was staying after school to attend a meeting of the Gay-Straight Alliance Club.

My first question: Do you have something you need to tell me? I never expected one of my kids to come out; it never crossed my mind. Yet, I knew beyond a shadow of doubt I was ready and willing to listen.

“Why does everyone forget about the straight part of the Gay-Straight Alliance?” she responded. I didn’t have an answer. But, she made perfect sense.

My daughter has many friends in the LGBTQ community. They bonded over anime, cosplaying, comic cons and love of the theater. Their group formed a real alliance -- friends who supported one another’s interests without regard to who was straight, gay, transgender or queer. Some of her bisexual friends joined the Latin Club for her. She joined the Gay-Straight Alliance Club in solidarity with her friends. Each kid is concerned about the interests of the other because they were friends first.

In Philippians 2:4 we are reminded to look after the interests of others -- even if their interests are not ours. In doing so, not only do we create physical relationships; our relationships are spiritual.

God calls us to be concerned about the interests of others the same way we take great care to pursue our own.

God, help us be as concerned about our friends and their interests as we are about ourselves. Amen.

Evelyn Ransom
Mother
Indianapolis, Indiana

March 10

Everyone needs encouragement. There’s nothing worse than putting forth your best effort and no one notices. It stings. It hurts. It’s painful.

What if your best effort is your life? Imagine presenting yourself to the world every day, and no one notices. No kind word, no bright smile, no open arms -- nothing.

For some of us, that’s what it’s like in certain spaces when people learn we live alternative lifestyles. Rather than encouragement, we receive condemnation. People refuse to issue marriage licenses because they don’t notice our love. People refuse to provide adequate health care because they don’t notice our bodies. People refuse to bake cakes because they don’t notice our feelings. It’s hard to be encouraged when not being noticed is your life, your everyday life.

That’s why I love the song, “Encourage Yourself,” by Donald Lawrence and the Tri-City Singers. Published June 18, 2009, these words comprise the first verse:

Sometimes you have to encourage yourself. Sometimes
you have to speak victory during the test. And no matter
how you feel, speak the word, and you will be healed.
Speak over yourself. Encourage yourself in the Lord.

To some, that might sound like an easy thing to do. For others of us, we need help. What do you say to encourage yourself? What words will make you feel better? What can you tell yourself to help you realize your worth, to remind you that you are fierce and fabulous?

Psalm 139:13-14
“You formed the way I think and feel. You put me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because you made me in such a wonderful way. I know how amazing that was!”

Gracious God,  ground us in the encouragement that comes from Your mouth, the encouragement we receive from Your words. Amen

Jessica Vallier
Philander Smith College
Little Rock, Arkansas

March 9

Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. -- John 12:24 (NIV)

I love the way this story about the grain of wheat reads in The Message:
Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground,
dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat.
But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over.
In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life.
But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.”

This short story demonstrates the way Jesus chose to predict his own death. It is so very Jesus-like in that it hardly tells anything concrete, yet, it tells so much at the same time.

It reminds me of a story about camellias a friend shared recently. She was trying to transplant one of her favorite camellias from the front yard to the back. Carefully, she dug up the plant and moved it to the perfect spot. Once it was in the ground, she offered it special care and attention so that it might rebloom right there, where she wanted it, next season. One night a storm caused the creek behind her house to rise and flood the entire back yard. The camellia was gone. A few years passed. One day she was working in the backyard and noticed not one, but eight little camellia bushes working to spring up from the ground. Never could she have imagined an entire backyard full of her favorite camellias!

This is just the point Jesus tries to make in John. Jesus teaches about his death, as well as, how we must die to what is holding us back in this world. When we hold onto life just as is it is, we run the risk of missing what could be. When we learn to let go, we can be reckless in love. And we might just find a whole yard full of camellias when we least expect it.

Maybe you are held back by labels the world has placed on you, by fear of what others will think, by hatred or by divisions. No matter what is holding you hostage to the way things are now, nothing changes the fact we are all created in love, by love and for love. When we can let go, we are free to embrace our true identity as beloved children of God.

What do you need to let go?

What must die so that something new might spring forth?

In the “letting go,” may you find life and love (and camellias) in abundance! Amen

Rev. Katie Gilbert
First United Methodist
Birmingham, Alabama

March 8

And no one takes this honor on himself, but he receives it when called by God, just as Aaron was. In the same way, Christ did not take on himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.” And he says in another place, “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” -- Hebrews 4:5-6 (NIV)

“Who are we? Whose are we?”  

The question: “Whose are we?” is as deep and rich and varied as “Who are we?”  We are -- in our very beings -- both a person with an individual path, an individual trajectory, and people in relationship with others. Our individual growth comes partly from inside; it comes from the magic of life itself, and we can see it in the development of young people. There is something inside that says: “I am this way, not that way. I am me; I am a new creation.”

Indeed, one of the important developmental steps for humans is to say “I am different from the parent.” The growth and identity of an individual is also by necessity (even biological necessity) relational. It comes from the community. We can reflect it. We can rebel against it and/or we can embrace it. We are who we are partly because of those around us. Some of us have to make or find the community that will support us.

Even those who do not receive love and acceptance from family know that rejection is very wrong, that they are deserving of love. Sadly, rejection is not uncommon for LGBTQ people, even now.

Every person belongs here, belongs on this planet! We know that because we can feel gravity. We feel Earth drawing us to Herself. With that, we can claim our belonging. We can also claim our belonging in the religious realm. We are children of God!

In Hebrews 5:5, Christ does not take on the glory of becoming a high priest for himself, but rather it is given to him from God. It is relational. God says, “You are my son.” This verse points to the relationship. The heart of this writing is relational. Jesus, the Son, is in relationship with God, and that relationship sparks new possibilities.

Whose are we? We are children of the Earth, children of God. We can create communities of love and support for ourselves. And in that creation of love, we walk in the image of God. Blessed be.

Rev. Dr. Gail Stratton
Unitarian Universalist Community Minister
Oxford, Mississippi

March 7

Do Not Keep Silent

Shout loudly; don’t hold back; raise your voice like a trumpet! -- Isaiah 58.1

The season of Lent is often a time to practice introspective meditation. It is characterized by the idea of delving into our inner selves to understand better our relationship with the Holy One, with Whom we walk through the spiritual wilderness. Quietness is at the center of Lenten practices. Yet, the first reading for our Lenten journey is of the prophet Isaiah calling us to shout loudly.

I am drawn to Isaiah 58:1-12. There is no more appropriate message for today’s LGBTQ and allied communities than the words of this prophet.

Daily, I sit and listen to the stories of LGBTQ persons who have been denied access to health care, housing, a job opportunity or education because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Too often we hear stories of people who have been verbally or physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Everyday my team and I work to educate, advocate and celebrate the LGBTQ community. However, for the past few months our work has gotten a lot harder.

Since the last general election in the USA, the LGBTQ community has been on increasingly high alert. Every passing day our community is the target of more violence and more hatred. When we thought that we were making progress, USA voters reminded us there is still strong anti-LGBTQ sentiment in this country. This same group of voters reminded us it isn’t just our LGBTQ identities; rather, it is our intersectional reality -- race, ethnicity, national origin, economic status, faith tradition, physical or mental abilities, etc. -- that make them feel threatened. With this new renewed understanding, this season of Lent takes on a different meaning for LGBTQ persons.

This season, Isaiah reminds us we must shout out and denounce sin. No longer can we remain idle. The Holy One, through the prophet, calls us into action.

Now is the time to rethink our Lenten disciplines. More than introspect, our Lenten disciplines should focus on denouncing injustice. We must amplify the voices of those experiencing oppression and proclaim liberation for all.

In the midst of the pain, injustice and sins of the powers that be, the Holy One reminds us They are here, journeying with us towards freedom.

Rev. J. Manny Santiago
Rainbow Center
Tacoma, Washington

March 6

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. -- John 3:16-21 (NIV)

Some of us who grew up in the church grew up with this familiar verse, John 3:16, emblazoned on our hearts and in our memories. There was even a season when people would post or hold up signs on live sporting events that read: John 3:16.  

This verse came alive when I was working at a soup kitchen in my mid-twenties. At noon, before each meal, there was a daily chapel service anyone was invited (but not required) to attend. We would sing and share Scripture and say prayers. The chapel service was made up of a diverse group of people -- different faiths, races, socio-economic classes.  Often, I would see one of the attorneys from the nearby downtown who had come to volunteer sitting next to one of the area street” people.

John 3:16 was one of the favorite verses of our chapel musician and convener. I’ll never forget the first time I heard him talk in that room about John 3:16.  He recited the verse: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” He would pause and peer out at everyone in the chapel. He would ask: “Now, how many ‘whosoevers’ do I have in here today?” The folks who were regular chapel attenders were familiar with this question. They would raise their hands quickly, eagerly. Other folks were often confused, wary, glancing around trying to determine exactly what was going on. The musician/convener would ask the question again: “How many ‘whosoevers’ do I have in here today?” More folks would catch on and raise their hands, until eventually, everyone in that whole diverse sea of humanity packed into that little chapel, would have his or her hand raised. The “street” people, addicts, work-from-home moms, residents of local personal care homes, elderly who didn’t have enough money to survive on their fixed incomes, attorneys in their expensive suits, staff members and anyone else who happened to show up that day. Each one of us would raise our hand proudly as we claimed our status as “whosoever.”  

Claiming our status as “whosoever” means recognizing no matter who we are, have been or will be... no matter what we have done or left undone, each one of us is created by God as good, and each one of us is cherished by God as the unique creation God made us to be.

So...how many whosoevers do I have here today?

Gracious God, I thank and praise You that You look at me, just as I am and call me good. Help me to remember that now and later. Amen  

Rev. Melanie Dickson Lemburg
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Savannah, Georgia

March 5

Asked what one wants more than anything else in the world, many people will answer with superficial responses that are, more often than not, related to material or quantifiable possessions or experiences: a dream home or a financially lucrative career. While both a home and employment satisfy obvious needs, the adjectives attached to them often reveal the superficiality of these responses. Deep down, what most people want more than anything else is simply to belong.

God knows that. That’s why there’s more than one of us. We were created for community. But we’ve been socialized to think living together is hard. The apostle Paul doesn’t. He offers a very simple solution: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” -- Romans 15:7 (NIV)

Somewhere along the way, we lost sight of what it means to love everyone. I’ve heard Christians say they condemn people because they love them. Youth are kicked out of homes for being LGBTQ because parents love them. As a 30-year career high school teacher, I sadly witnessed some of the 1.6 million young people who experience homelessness in the United States annually. Forty percent of them are LGBTQ. Forty-six percent ran away because their families rejected them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. How is that love?

Love doesn’t judge people for who they are. Love doesn’t think it knows more about a person than the person. Love doesn’t keep a tally of other people’s “sins.” Love embraces.

Love looks into the eyes of another and sees a reflection of God. Love recognizes that differences are unique expressions of God. Each of us is God’s fashion statement to our collective and common humanity. There is no expectation to “be in or out” based on the rises and falls of social and political climates. Love celebrates people for who they are, just as they are. Love doesn’t arbitrarily equivocate. Love is a gift outright, the connective tissue from God that binds us without regard to our beautiful, inherent differences.

Gracious God, teach us how to love each other the way You love us. Amen

Joyce Elliott
Retired Public School Teacher
Little Rock, Arkansas

March 4

Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law. He will be put to death, but three days later he will rise to life.” He made this very clear to them. So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But Jesus turned around, looked at his disciples, and rebuked Peter. “Get away from me, Satan,” he said. “Your thoughts don't come from God but from human nature!” Then Jesus called the crowd and his disciples to him. “If any of you want to come with me,” he told them, “you must forget yourself, carry your cross, and follow me. For if you want to save your own life, you will lose it; but if you lose your life for me and for the gospel, you will save it. Do you gain anything if you win the whole world but lose your life? Of course not! There is nothing you can give to regain your life.  If you are ashamed of me and of my teaching in this godless and wicked day, then the Son of Man will be ashamed of you when he comes in the glory of [God] with the holy angels.”  -- Mark 8:31-38 (GNT)

In Christian faith communities, we look to the Bible for guidance on how to live our lives as a journey of faith. This journey can look differently from person to person, community to community.

One thing we discover during Lent is the best journeys lead us to unforeseen places both in the world and within ourselves. The joy of walking around a bend in the path to behold a breathtaking vista is hard to describe fully to someone who has never been on a mountain. The joy of discovering how surrendering something opens us up to unanticipated surprises within ourselves and our world is difficult to explain to someone who has never practiced the discipline of self-denial.

When Jesus tells his disciples gaining the world while forfeiting our souls has no value, it makes no sense in a world where making more money, acquiring more power and using more influence are often the hallmarks of success.

Learning to have “the mind of God” is a life-long journey, not a destination. With each layer we peel away, a new opportunity is revealed that will require character, faith and courage to discern. In that process, we discover our soul -- as breathtaking as a mountain vista and as transformational as realizing we are loved and valued -- just as we are -- in the presence of God.

Rev. Paul Eknes-Tucker
Pilgrim Church UCC
Birmingham, Alabama

 

March 3

Keep Justice and Do Right

For as long as I can remember, I have loved God and desired to proclaim the Gospel. I dreamt of preaching and doing the work of ministry that would bring salvation, healing and freedom.  Then, I heard those dreadful words: “You are not welcome here!” I was not welcome because I was not of the tribe of straight folks. I was not welcome because I was a woman. Now what what would become of me and my desire to proclaim the Gospel and do good? God spoke to me through the prophet Isaiah:

…“Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed. Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.” Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people;” and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.  -- Isaiah 56:1-5 (ESV)

If only I keep justice and do what is right, practice doing unto others what I would have them do unto me, rather than treating them with the conditional love and acceptance I received...if I keep the Sabbath, honor and observe resting in the Lord, do what pleases God, worship with my whole heart, the Lord will come save me and that which is right and good will be revealed.

There was a season of waiting, the waiting was not without hope. Because of God’s promise of salvation to Israel and God’s inclusion of the foreigner (one not bearing the blood of Israel) and the eunuch (the one seen as unclean, not welcome and forbidden to enter the temple), I became even more hopeful that I would be saved from oppressive, legalistic, patriarchal, religious leadership and revelation would come to their eyes and hearts.

Friends, in the fight for equality and fairness for all God’s people, let us not get weary in doing good as we keep justice and do what is right. Remember. In due season, we will reap a harvest if we do not give up (Galatians 6:5).

Gracious God, help us reflect and wait in great anticipation of the revealing of God’s salvation and righteousness…the day Your Kingdom includes us all. Amen

Rev. Lesley E. Jones
Truth and Destiny Covenant Ministries UCC
Cincinnati, Ohio

March 2

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. -- Psalm 139: 13-14, NRSV

Is there something about your personal self you would change if you could? All of us have something we would change or redo about ourselves, and we think this change or redo will make us happier.

I think about my hair. I love my hair. It has good color and great length. But it’s close to baby-fine. It’s hard to curl, doesn’t stay the same after a few short hours and is very difficult to style differently from one day to the next.

There was a divine design for our complete selves. It was not an accident when eyes were made brown or blue. No accident when hair was made straight or curly. No accident if legs are long or short, and no accident when God put us on the ever fluid spectrum of sexuality and gender.

This psalm tells us: [God] formed our inward parts and knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. God was watching when we were made. Even more than watching, God was designing. God was designing us to be who we are and who we will become. The psalm claims this as God’s wonderful work and gives thanks for it.

It is vital we share this knowledge with siblings, children and grandchildren. Everyone in this rocky world needs to know there is a greater plan than we can see. Tell your friends, family, peers, anyone struggling God has a plan for them. That “all our days were written in God’s book before we were ever born.”

No matter how old we get, there will always be personal issues that bring forth the insecurities we try to hide. God sees these. God knows us inside and out, and still, God has a plan for us. God’s plan is not just for this world, not just for our country, not just for our family, but for all of us as individuals.

We are who we are for a reason. How we deal with the details is up to us. The best thing we can't do is be thankful for the beautiful self God has given us, and see beauty in the things we like least. Let’s be absolutely thankful for every part of this life. Even when the roughest times come, know that God is with you. We are who we are for a reason.

Gracious God, in the dark times, reminding me again and again there is a divine design to my complete self. You knew me before I was in my mother’s womb. You made me there. You have a plan for me. I am who I am for a reason. Thank You! Amen.

Catherine Poellnitz
Director of Youth Ministries
Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church
Birmingham, Alabama

March 1

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.  --First Corinthians 1:18-25 (NRSV)

People were asked the question: What is the most counterintuitive thing you’ve learned? Here are some responses:1

  • Being a perfectionist can lead to inferior results.
  • The most confident memories can be the ones that are false.
  • The more you struggle in quicksand, the more you sink.
  • Too much time on social media can make you less social.
  • Vulnerability makes a relationship stronger.

In a list of the most counterintuitive things, the apostle Paul would put the gospel at the very top. Paul calls the message of the cross “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”-- it doesn’t make sense to either group. To believe that God would be revealed to us in a crucified political prisoner in first century Palestine is absolutely counterintuitive. But for those who believe the message of the cross, Paul says it is the power and the wisdom of God.

Why would Paul begin his letter to the Corinthians with this discussion about the foolishness of the cross? Well, the church in Corinth is divided along multiple lines -- allegiance to different missionaries, disagreement over the greatest spiritual gifts, socioeconomic status and education. In other words, the church in Corinth is fraught with elitism of all types -- theological, spiritual, socioeconomic and intellectual.  Nothing pulls the rug out from under elitism like using the cross as the lens through which we view the world, as the model for what it means to live in love as the revelation of who God is.

The cross reminds us we don’t find God by believing certain things, by being the best preacher or teacher or prophet, in great wealth, or in intellectual prowess. The cross tells us when we find God, we find life in relationship, in giving ourselves to one another in love just as Christ did.

What does this look like in daily life? To live the gospel is to see the risen Christ in each person we meet not because we bring it to them, but because it is always already there. It is to realize God doesn’t love any of us more, or less, because of what we have, what we know, where we live, who we are, what gifts we brings to the table, what we believe or who we love. It is to believe that in giving of ourselves to one another, we find ourselves. We find God, too. Sound like foolishness? Jesus invites us to come and see.

Gracious God, give us grace to live the gospel in our daily lives -- loving one another unconditionally, as you love each of us. Amen

Reverend Teri Daily
All Saints’ Episcopal Church
Russellville, Arkansas

“What’s the most counterintuitive thing you’ve learned?”, Quora, https://www.quora.com/Whats-the-most-counterintuitive-thing-youve-learned. Accessed January 28, 2018.

February 28

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? … Therefore “Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.” -- 2 Corinthians 6:14, 17

What are you “giving up” for Lent? Chocolate? Coffee? Profanity? What if you were asked to give up something you hold far more dear, like your church?

This year, this question touched my life in a very personal way. I have served as the organist, choir leader and Sunday school teacher in a United Methodist church for several years. Although reasonably tolerant, they refuse to take the next step to fully and publicly affirm the sacred worth of people who are LGBTQ. The United Methodist Church is a denomination that continues to teach that choosing to live an authentic life is inconsistent with Christian teaching. Being part of this church, I was endorsing and supporting an organization that classifies me as a second class citizen. I could never get married, serve as clergy or be fully involved in the life of the church. Either I accept my role as second class citizen or give up membership in that church and launch into the unknown.

As I continued to contemplate and pray, the words from 2 Corinthians kept coming to mind: “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord.” I struggled with this command for a long time. I justified staying by saying  I was “taking a stand” by refusing to leave. Then, I realized I’m not called to take a stand; I am called to take a journey -- to come out from among them and be something more. God called me to live an authentic life, and for me that meant I was being called to give up the church I had known and embrace the unknown.

I found a new home in my local Episcopal church, and my entire walk of faith has changed. No longer am I a second class citizen but a child of God, fully welcomed at God’s table. This year, maybe you are being called to give up something more than your morning coffee or your afternoon chocolate. Maybe this is your year to give up comfort and embrace your authentic self!

Gracious God, as we launch into the unknown of authenticity, keep us steady on our feet. Remind us that You are with us every step of the way. Amen

Rev. David White
Jonesboro, Arkansas

February 27

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. --Mark 9:2-10 (NRSV)

Trans Jesus

Tradition calls Jesus’ ethereal mountaintop transformation the transfiguration, a mystical experience that used to seem, to me, inapplicable to my own life. But my transgender friends and parishioners have helped me recognize it as a universal story of God’s unending transformational work within us all. All of us who undertake significant change can hear in that process God’s reaffirmation of our belovedness.

Although witnesses to another’s transformation can be “terrified” of such change, they can, like the early apostles, ultimately hear God reminding them not to listen to prejudice and fear but instead to “listen to [Jesus].”

Despite name changes, wardrobe changes, even changes to the anatomy, many transgender women and men hear God’s affirmation over the cultural noise of disapproval. These beloved sons and daughters appear more radiant as they live into their truest selves. The God of change, growth and renewal surely blesses those who climb the difficult mountain of transfiguration to make changes and reclaim the promise of God’s delight in them.

As a spiritual exercise in imitating our Lord, we followers of Jesus can put ourselves in his place in this Gospel account. That means all of us (gay or straight, trans or cis) are empowered to make daring changes in our lives that align us more truly with our God-given identity and allow us to shine our dazzling light into the world.

Those who have left a closet to climb a mountain of transformation or who have crossed a gender barrier to radiate their authentic self, take time this Lenten season to fast from self-doubt. Instead, engage in a spiritual practice of listening to God pronounce you, again and again, “My child, the beloved.”

Gracious God, thank You for setting aside this time for us to grow more confident, more bold, more trusting of our transformations into the humanity You created us to be. Amen

Rev. Ellen Sims
Open Table United Church of Christ
Mobile, Alabama

February 26​

Last year, I attended an Ash Wednesday service for the first time in more than five years. Entering a room of quiet reflection lit only by candles, the small flames felt like beacons of hope to my soul. Following a few moments of reverent worship, the time to receive the ashes drew near.

In years past, when ashes were received I’d heard phrases like, “From dust you came, and to dust you will return” spoken as a solemn reminder of our humanity. But this year when I went forward, the person administering the ashes instead said something different. Cupping my face in their hands, they looked me in the eye, and said,“Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?”

These words sat on the ground of my soul. I couldn’t shake them the power resonate deeply within me. My eyes filled with tears. So much of my life felt marked by the dirt of sorrow, shame or loss. So many hopes tainted by the dust of life, by humanity, by skewed theology, by people telling me I wasn’t enough or that my sexual orientation disqualified me somehow from the love of God. In the midst of the dirt and grime of life, I had forgotten what God, the Holy One, can do with dust. I’d neglected to remember God’s power to breathe life into the lifeless, to restore what’s been lost and to make beauty from the ashes.

Isaiah 61:1,3 reads: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor; He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted…to give them beauty for ashes and the oil of joy for mourning.”

Oh, how easy it is to forget the news that God is good; that we belong in the family of God regardless of what people say, and that the ashes of our hearts will be made into something beautiful as we live out our authentic selves and allow the One who tends our hearts to make all things new.

During this season of Lent, I encourage you to give the ashen pieces of your soul up to the God who loves you and created you exactly as you are. Watch what others have called dirt be redeemed by the love of a God who sees you, knows you and declares you “fearfully and wonderfully made."

If I could see you face to face today, I would cup your face in my hands and gently ask you, “Did you not know what the Holy One could do with dust?”

Amber Cantora
Founder of Beyond
Denver, Colorado

February 25

Walk By Faith  

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.  --Genesis 17:1-7

The first step on a spiritual journey starts with learning to walk by faith. Faith requires strength and courage because we have to see beyond our present circumstance. We must have faith in what we cannot see in order to obtain our deepest desires. If we are going to manifest our hopes and dreams, we have to participate in the act of faith. During his time here on earth, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us of the importance of walking by faith when he said, “take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” Even when you cannot see it, trusting that God is the guiding force is the key to awakening our aspirations.

The story of Abram illustrates the necessity of walking by faith. When God appeared to Abram and called him into covenant, Abram could have easily looked at his current situation and refused to believe. Instead of allowing doubt to set in, he fell on his face and surrendered to the process. Abram exemplified an act of faith and was set free from his limitations. In that very moment, he became Abraham. When he accepted God’s call into covenant, he was able to become the fullest version of himself. God changed his name, spoke a new vision over his life and called him into a higher state of being. As a result of Abraham’s faithfulness, he entered into the promises of God.

As we continue to enter our promised land of equity and inclusion, it is important we keep an active faith while remaining faithful to the vision of a just and humane society.  Moving from denial to acceptance, shame to pride and fear to love when it comes to our basic humanity, requires walking by faith. It requires us to see ourselves called into covenant by God. Our circumcision comes through the heart as we seek to embody the principles of Truth. The promises of God are extended to each and every one of us, so let us keep the faith as we accept our call into covenant.

God, teach us to walk by faith and not by sight. Help us surrender to Your invitation into covenant relationship and realize Your promises are offered all the time.  

Dr. Shameka Nicole Cathey
Jackson, Mississippi

February 24

We just emerged from the season celebrating the birth of Jesus and are embarking on a reflection of his life and observance of his death and resurrection.

God promises our salvation because Jesus lived and died, was and is, on our behalf. We were not first-person witnesses to Jesus’ humanity, but faith compels us to believe his words and acts, and follow his example.

Paul cited Abraham’s lifelong patience and faith in things unrealized. For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith...Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be (Romans 4:13,18).”

So it is with those of us who face life’s challenges in the fervent hope that what is right and just and true will prevail. As descendants of Abraham, we share the inheritance that hope and faith fill our belief in God’s mercy and grace. All of us won’t have strength in faith at the same time, all the time, but when we do, we will have enough to share with others. We can trust God’s promise as evidenced by those before us, including Abraham and Sarah, and, most significantly, Jesus. Just as God did for Abraham so that all of us would benefit and be blessed, we should commit to uphold one another in faith and love. No distrust made [Abraham] waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God,  being fully convinced that God was able to do what [God] had promised.

God is with us. Let us be encouraged by the lessons of Lent and the glory of Easter.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Susan Read
Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
Hot Springs Village, Arkansas

February 23

In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful

Qur'an 3:139 -- "Do not lose hope, nor be sad."

We were created for community. One God, one family, one purpose -- to share in the spiritual experience of human connection. One of many plethora ways we can connect and empathize this holy Christian period of Lent is through fasting. Reflecting on the similarities between Lent and Ramadan, fasting, as a religious discipline, binds all of us as one human family and one purpose only -- to increase our consciousness of God.

God does not expect us to navigate life alone. Being alive is about learning and loving, loving and caring, caring and supporting, supporting and encouraging each other. But love for others needs to be anchored in God's love. Just as narrated in 1 Samuel 16:7, Abu Hurairah, a prolific narrator and companion of Prophet Muhammad, narrated the prophet saying, “God looks at your hearts [and deeds].”

Yet, in our present world, much is made of the differences that exist between us. We are divided by fear, fear that can be eradicated through relationship. Whether we are LGBTQ or heterosexual or cisgender…whether we are Christian or Muslim or Jewish, each of us is called to live in community, in harmony, in unity. We must not allow intolerance, unjust policies, immoral bans or divisive walls to shift our focus. We must not allow misguided interpretations of religion and faith to cause us to hang our heads in shame, hide the truth of who we are or demonize us for what we believe. We must stand together in solidarity because both the Qur’an and the Bible uplift and sustain the sanctity and dignity of human life.

As many pray, fast and reflect for Lent, even in the darkest of days, know that you never walk alone. God is with you. God is present in the kind words of a stranger. God is present in the non-judgmental eyes of a child. God is present in the affection of a lover. And God is also present outside of religious institutions.

May Allah, God of Abraham, bless us and bind us together with cords that cannot be broken. Help us become one in Your name. Ameen

Khizr Khan
Patriotic American Muslim
Charlottesville, Virginia

February 22

I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fundraising schemes, your public relations and image making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice -- oceans of it. I want fairness --rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want. -- Amos 5:21-24, MSG

I was excited. I’d never been on a jet ski before. I did not realize I was scaring my father. I rode so far out in the ocean, my dad could no longer see me. That meant he couldn’t reach me if something were to happen. I was on my own, and that was dangerous. He was worried; I wasn’t. With mist spraying my face, waves clearing my path and birds flying over my head, I was at peace. It never dawned on me to take his feelings into consideration.

The same thing is happening in our world. We are straying so far away from morals, values and ethics we can no longer see God. Some of us have big, beautiful homes and luxury cars. We make a living wage and keep money in the bank. We’re at peace. We don’t even consider the lives of others, the ones who are worried. We don’t see that they live in food deserts. We don’t see that their homes are broken because of a profitable prison system. We don’t see their health declining from lack of access to quality health care. We don’t see them struggling to decide food or medicine, religion or sexuality, life or death. That is dangerous.

Something must give; we can’t go on like this. It’s time for us to heed the call of the prophet and remember to keep the main thing the main thing. God doesn’t care that we have stuff; God cares that some of us have nothing. Until we fix that, nothing else matters…not to the ones who are worried, nor to God.

Lord, let this Lenten season be used to get our priorities straight. Amen

Rev. Dr. Denise Donnell
Orange Consulting
Little Rock, Arkansas

February 21

So I bow in prayer before God. Every family in heaven and on earth gets its true name from him. I ask God with God’s great glory to give you the power to be strong in your spirits. God will give you that strength through God’s Spirit. I pray that Christ will live in your hearts because of your faith. I pray that your life will be strong in love and be built on love. And I pray that you and all God’s holy people will have the power to understand the greatness of Christ’s love — how wide, how long, how high, and how deep that love is. Christ’s love is greater than anyone can ever know, but I pray that you will be able to know that love. Then you can be filled with everything God has for you. If ever there was a prayer from Paul that should be etched into the very bone and marrow of our hearts and souls, it is this one. --Ephesians 3:14-19 (ERV)

In this prayer, Paul describes the love of Christ, of God in three ways. God’s love is earthy, expansive and mysterious.

Paul speaks of our need to be rooted in God’s love. Roots sink and grow into the earth, the soil, the ground beneath us. There is something natural about the experience Paul encourages us to have. This is not something indefinite; it is solid, something we can dig into. It has a tangible essence. Christ embodied God’s love in ways that had not been experienced before his birth. He drew in the dirt. He spat in the mud and rubbed it in eyes. He cooked fish and ate. He broke bread and poured wine.

Back in the day there was a worship song we used to sing: “How high and how wide, how deep and how long is your love?”* It made me feel God’s love is wonderful! Amazing! Singing the truth about God’s love can do that to a person. Paul’s description of God’s love reminds me of the psalmist who recognized there is nowhere we can flee from God’s presence, from God’s love (Psalm 139:7-10).

Paul describes this love as surpassing all knowledge, we can’t comprehend it. To experience God’s love in both demonstrative and inexplicable ways simultaneously is incomprehensible. Out of our heads, into our bodies, we live this love.

Can God’s love be three things at once? There is an all-encompassing nature to God’s love that is impossible for our finite minds to grasp. It is earthy and mysterious, knowable and unknowable. At the same time, we are called to root ourselves in God’s love, a love we can't possibly wrap our finite minds around.

This earthy, expansive, mysterious love Christ embodies is the love God calls us to embody in the world -- to our neighbors, to our friends, to all of creation. We are called to embody this love to those with whom we agree and those with whom we disagree. Even to those who voted like is and those who did not, we are to embody God’s love. There are no exceptions.

As a queer person, I am not excluded from receiving this love. Neither am I excluded from the call to embody it. You aren’t either. What would that look like...to move through this world -- through our lives and days -- grounded and rooted thoroughly, filled with the belovedness we can’t help but see and affirm in others?

It is my prayer God will challenge you and me to open ourselves to the deep,wide and amazing love of God we know and long to understand. Amen.

*Sadly a quick Google search brought me to the rest of the song lyrics which dilute the message of love that the chorus proclaims. This reminds me of some Psalms which can move from proclaiming the wonders of God’s love in one line, to smiting God’s enemies in the next.

Helen Ryde
Reconciling Ministries Network
Asheville, North Carolina

February 20

Lord, I put my life in your hands. I trust in you, my God, and I will not be disappointed. My enemies will not laugh at me. No one who trusts in ou will be disappointed. But disappointment will come to those who try to deceive others. They will get nothing. Lord, help me learn your ways. Show me how you want me to live. Guide me and teach me your truths. You are my God, my Savior. You are the one I have been waiting for. Remember to be kind to me, Lord. Show me the tender love that you have always had.  -- Psalm 25:1-6, ERV

In this psalm, the writer sings a petition for deliverance and guidance. The psalmist cries out to God for God’s understanding, compassion, tolerance and supervision.  The Psalmist is willing to be totally exposed by “lifting up [her] soul” as a means of invoking God’s ultimate liberation from shame and fear.

The twin evils of fear and shame are the seminal demons that separate us from ourselves, God and each other. The manifestations of these often involve the secular constructs of “isms”--  genderism, racism, sexism, ableism, classism, etc., which impede and arrest the love and grace of God’s Holy Spirit.

Praying, conversing and petitioning are methods to becoming superlatively humble. It is being “excruciatingly vulnerable,” as Brene Brown espouses, which  yields a consciousness that we can indeed overcome separation between ourselves, our Creator and others. This is how forgiveness of self and others is accomplished. God’s forgiveness involves us being open and honest with God in a superlative way that leads to our emancipation.

Admitting our faults is certainly an exercise in humility and vulnerability. It is only when we are mindful of God’s mercy, justice and steadfast love that we are emboldened to expose ourselves again and again to God. This type of praxis is what a new and vibrant relationship with God is all about.

This Lenten season we are reminded that by focusing again on prayer and fasting we can reexamine the things within us that continually bind us and make it almost impossible to lift our souls to God. God promises as we acknowledge the things in ourselves and our lives which edge God out (ego), we will experience revitalization.

By God’s Holy Spirit, we are animated continually to make our confessions known. Then, we are liberated from the expectations of our “enemies” and ourselves.

Forgiving God, give us grace to continually expose ourselves to You and lift up our souls in truth to be emancipated by Your all-encompassing love. Amen

The Reverend Dr. Tommie Watkins, Jr.
Associate Rector and Assistant Chaplain
Canterbury Episcopal Chapel and Student Center
Tuscaloosa, Alabama

February 19

Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came (on Easter Sunday). So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord!" But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe. A week later, the disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" -- John 20:24-28

During Lent, we walk the way of the Cross. Yet even after Easter, Thomas was still stuck. He still lived in Good Friday.

It's easy to get stuck.

Thomas was traumatized. His memory was filled with images of the crucifixion of his friend and teacher. He could still see the wounds vividly. The blood. The suffering. The death. Every time he remembered, he re-lived the haunting feelings. Helplessness. Outrage. Anger. Hurt. Pain. Hopelessness. The finality of it all. Thomas lived in that trauma. He was unimpressed by the feel-good declarations of his friends that they had seen the Lord. Thomas needed to see something as real as what he had experienced. Something real enough to transcend his haunted memories.

Jesus honored Thomas' honesty and came to him singularly. Though Jesus was in a resurrected state, the wounds were still there, but they no longer hurt. Their meaning had changed.

Our culture can be so cruel to our LGBTQ neighbors. We wound and pierce and traumatize our neighbors. Emotional violence toward LGBTQ persons often amounts to a crucifixion, a denial of their very being.

But love is stronger than death. Acceptance transcends denial. Inclusion overcomes exclusion. It is significant that the disciples didn't kick Thomas out when he rejected their claims. He was still part of the community the following Sunday.

Gracious God, teach us how to disagree harmoniously, how to love unconditionally through the struggle and offer one another the gift of Jesus which is peace. Amen

Reverend Lowell Grisham
Retired Former Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, Arkansas

February 18

I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth. -- Genesis 9:13-16, NIV

Lent gives us time to stop and reconsider consequences.

Early in the book of Genesis, the story of the flood and the rainbow demonstrate even God is willing to stop and make corrections.  

In the story of Noah, the Almighty displays terrible fury by “cutting off all of life” in the great flood. Then, it seems God repented as They realized total annihilation was a bit over the top. Even though God “won” by showing absolute power with the worldwide flood, at what cost was this victory? Was the flood an overreaction? The covenant with creation was God’s promise to show restraint. The rainbow forever reminds us of the virtue of divine self-correction and self-control. The rainbow became a sign of God’s commitment never again to become unhinged. With the covenant of the rainbow, God shows us how to correct an overreaction.

In June 2015, I was on the front page of my hometown paper waving a giant rainbow flag in celebration of the Supreme Court decision for marriage equality. Across the nation, enemies of equality were defeated and we, LGBTQ Americans, won a major victory against injustice. Rainbow flags were waved as we marched in triumph through the streets.

It is disappointing that the marriage victory did not usher in an era of greater acceptance and peace. Instead, politicians used the marriage decision as evidence of a “militant gay agenda”  to destroy the family and further divide our country. We must keep up the political battle against misrepresentations and unjust policies.  

The rainbow isn’t restricted to flags. The colors of the rainbow also create splendid light in sanctuaries across the world. We must work hard to build sanctuaries that invite hurt people in to find healing and peace.  

The rainbow flag has a place in battle, but the rainbow is the original sign of peace. Allow this Lenten season to be a time for reflection and reconsideration. What is the best strategy for winning hearts -- inviting and building or fighting and yelling?

Rev. Martin Todd Allen
The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples
San Francisco, California

February 17

We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left;  through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed;  sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything. -- II Corinthians 6:3-10

She walked into my office with determination. Her feet stuck straight out in the wing chair, too short to touch the ground. She was all of seven, but she knew she loved Jesus and wanted the world to know it, too.

At that point, I could not have known: pansexual, mother. Did her love for Jesus waver? Will my love for her waver? I wondered.

During Lent, I ask myself these questions: Will I walk the way of the Cross with unwavering faith? Do my actions -- known and unknown -- cause Jesus’ love for me to waver?

Paul’s words to the Corinthians sound like a pep talk that challenges wavering faith. Endure in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumult, labor and hunger. Let God’s power give you weapons for righteousness, so that purity, knowledge, kindness and genuine love can be known.  

This is possible because God’s heart is so wide it embraces us all.

Imagine yourself as that small child sitting in God’s large arm chair. While others may treat you as an imposter, one dishonored and of ill repute, know that God does not see you that way. God’s heart is wide. God’s beloved child, God’s heart is full of love for you.

Gracious God, during this season of Lent, open wide our hearts that we may embody the heart of God and embrace all people. Amen  

Sarah Shelton
Baptist Church of the Covenant
Birmingham, Alabama

February 16

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. -- Psalm 51:10-12

Repentance is a humbling experience. We see just how much God loves us through our wrongdoings. David committed murder. He repented emphatically. Although he perpetrated such a horrible crime, God accepted his repentant heart.

Have you ever done something wrong and asked the Lord’s forgiveness? If so, the Lord has forgiven you. You are no longer held captive. God’s love abounds. Nothing can stop God from loving you.

People like to confront you about things for which you have already been forgiven. They want you unhappy, riddled with guilt, filled with shame. That’s not how God operates. David’s cry, “Create a clean heart in me,” is evidence that God not only forgives, but empowers. God’s forgiveness is the catalyst for change. God’s forgiveness sets you free to fulfill your purpose in this world. Your purpose involves loving yourself, forgiving yourself and trusting the God inside you.

During this season of Lent, move with confidence, knowing God’s grace is available to everyone, not to a certain denomination, heterosexuals or Bible-toting believers. God’s grace is available to everyone! Whenever you are bogged down, pray. God will direct you. God will instruct you. Remember. Nothing is impossible with God.

Gracious God, when the world refuses to see You reflected in my eyes, remind me of Your unconditional love for me. Be present with me always. Walk with me.Talk to me. Forgive me. Love me. Love through me. Amen

Tammi Talley
Cosmopolitan Congregation
Dallas, Texas

February 15

Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy. -- Matthew 5;7

Grace and Mercy

In these Lenten days, let us give thanks for the character of our God.

The Lord, the Lord, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  God speaks these words in Exodus 34:6. Moses and God have alternately lost patience with the people, tempering the disappointment of one another in timely ways. The golden calf has been fashioned and smashed. The tablets of the law have been given and smashed. I imagine God taking a deep breath as a fresh start. God instructs Moses to take new tablets to the mountaintop. The Holy One speaks the beautiful description of divine character: God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

These words describing God resound throughout the Bible and are repeated in Nehemiah and Nahum, Jonah and Joel, and Psalms and Proverbs. The New Testament echoes the resonance through the teaching and example of Jesus and the experiences of Mary and Matthew, Paul and Lydia, Dorcas and Peter.

Jesus invites: Bear the life of God, be merciful just as God is merciful. The journey challenges. In the novel A Man Called Ove, Ove's friend struggles with the marriage of his son. He confesses to Ove, "It is hard to change when you have been wrong for a very long time." Yet he changes, and blesses the marriage.

We rejoice when hearts change. We seek justice for all people, space for the full participation of all people, abundant life for all people, affirmation for all people. We do this in imitation of God.

We pray for the church of Jesus Christ and for all people of faith. Many have been wrong for a very long time. We pray for these hearts to change.

May hearts become tender and whole. May the capacity increase to legislate and proclaim welcome to all people, especially LGBTQ persons, into faith communities.

This is God's deep desire for us, God's intent for us, across the ages and forevermore.

Gracious God, we pray this day for all communities of faith and for the LGBTQ persons who continue to be welcomed with hesitancy or not welcomed at all. We confess this as contrary to God's creative and gracious will. Redeem communities of faith for gracious and prophetic witness in our broken world, we pray. Amen

Bishop Hope Morgan Ward
North Carolina Conference
United Methodist Church

February 14

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me  and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today  will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and He will say, “Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach,  the restorer of streets to live in.” --Isaiah 58:1-12

I find it a bit ironic that on the day we march down the aisle of the church to have our foreheads very visibly marked with ashes to begin Lent, a season of penitence, fasting and reflection we are asked to read the prophet Isaiah. Then, Isaiah informs us of what God really  wants from us. Isaiah informs us that God is looking for us to get busy and loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free and to break the yoke of oppression.  In case that’s too vague, Isaiah drives home the point that what God really desires is for us to feed the hungry, clothe the impoverished and satisfy the needs of the oppressed.

There isn’t anything wrong with the Ash Wednesday ritual, but what God really needs is people willing to become resources for justice and rebuilders of this world.

I imagine Isaiah a bit impatient. “Ash if you must,” he seems to say, standing at the back of the church repeatedly looking at his watch, “but come on, there are folks hungry and hurting who need our attention, and isn’t that what this really is  about?”

Isaiah reminds us to challenge the religious status quo and pay attention to those who suffer.  For me that includes people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. The LGBT community that is still too often excluded from the full life of the church and many communities.

More important than ashes this Ash Wednesday (which coincides with Valentine’s Day), I pray we will pay attention to the voice of the prophet Isaiah. I pray we will answer a call to action to work for a community of inclusion, made strong with the gifts of diversity, where the gloom of oppression is a thing of the past.

Reggie Holder
Director of Growing Ministries
Highlands United Methodist Church
Birmingham, Alabama

The Lenten Devotional is a faith-filled resource that compiles meditations written by 47 faith leaders from across the United States. This project and other public education work with faith leaders in HRC's Project One America states and HRC's Religion and Faith Program is made possible in part by the generous support of the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.