Category Archives: Meditations

Meditations derived from Gardening Genesis

Saying I’m Sorry

In many Christian churches and most assuredly in churches that follow a church calendar, Lent is a season of penitence. During this penitential season, we admit that we have sin or transgressed against God and we are sorry for those transgressions. While repenting of our sins against God is necessary, perhaps the truth of Lent is more than telling God we are sorry. Possibly, we must tell individuals that we have wronged that we are sorry. Below is a story from the Bible that exemplifies how a sinner confessed his sin to the person he wronged.

The story of Onesimus is told in a letter from Paul to Philemon. On a missionary journey Paul met Philemon in Colosse and led Philemon to a saving belief in Christ. The Bible is silent on whether Paul encountered Onesimus at this time. Assuredly Onesimus knew about Paul and the new Christian faith his owner embraced.

Onesimus was a runaway slave who belonged to Philemon. When Onesimus ran from Philemon, apparently, he stole money or valuables. Onesimus used the money to pay for passage on a ship bound for Rome. Rome was a frequent destination of runaway slaves. In a population of one million people, it was easy to remain hidden; however, Onesimus didn’t remain hidden from his destiny.

Paul was in Rome under house arrest (59-61/62 AD) when Onesimus arrived there. Onesimus heard Paul, or another missionary, preach. He converted to Christianity. Soon Onesimus began to help Paul with his ministry. Onesimus and Paul became so close that Paul described himself as Onesimus’ father and Onesimus as his child. Although they wanted to stay together, both agreed that Philemon had a prior claim on Onesimus. Onesimus must make restitution to Philemon. Onesimus returned to Philemon in Colosse. With him, Onesimus took a personal letter from Paul, begging Philemon to be lenient toward his runaway slave.

In the Roman Empire, slaves were property. The master of a runaway slave could treat the slave anyway he desired. Normal procedure was for owners to brand captured slaves on the forehead, maim them, or force them to fight wild beasts in a Roman arena. Being a Christian, Philemon wouldn’t have subjected Onesimus to such extreme punishment; however, he could have punished Onesimus, i.e., flogging, poor food and housing, or the worst jobs.

In Paul’s letter to Philemon, Paul didn’t deny or negate the seriousness of Onesimus’ actions when he ran from Philemon; yet, Paul asked Philemon to forgive Onesimus. Although the Bible doesn’t say so, very likely Onesimus also told Philemon he was sorry that he stole from him and ran away from him. Onesimus took personal accountability for his sins against his master. Onesimus returning to Philemon was a step in demonstrating Onesimus’ repentance.

Most of us will never be a slave who ran away from a master, yet, often we steal valuable belongings from friends and acquaintances. We rob them of their good name when we gossip about them. Some individuals even rob a man or woman of their spouse or the love of children. These sins are as egregious as a valuable run-away slave. Lent is a great time to free ourselves of the sins we committed against others.

Reflection: God requires us to make peace with anyone we wronged prior to making peace with him (Matthew 5:23-24).

A Nun’s Lenten Reflection

In Lent, the excitement of Jesus’ Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany gives way to Jesus’ pain and suffering. In Lent we contemplate how unworthy we are to receive God the Son’s pain. Despite our unworthiness, God’s plan and his Son’s action were to lay down his life for you, me, and every human who has ever lived on earth.

Lent is a spiritual journey in which Christians follow Christ across his life into his death. Preparation for Lent begins with a heart that desires the Triune God. Initially, the desire may be small, no larger than the fire at the end of a tiny birthday candle. Lent fans our desire for God until that tiny candle flame becomes a raging bonfire because in Lent we experience anew Jesus’ sacrifice for us. Lent requires that we empty ourselves of many things. A raging bonfire in us to know Christ takes a lot of space in our lives.

During Lent, most of us need to ask ourselves, “What is cluttering my life that I place before God?” For some, the answer is spouse, children, work, or church. Others may have special projects they are immersed in. All or most of these answers that require our time are needed and valuable. They are only a problem if they take priority over our relationship with God and spending time pondering the extent of his sacrifice for us.

Above all else in Lent, we must be open to the gifts from God. God’s first gift to us is his overwhelming love showed by Christ’s dying for our sins. In Lent, we can intentionally move beyond experiencing God’s love toward us to expressing God’s love to others. Lent can be a gathering of our energies so that we love God back and love individuals we encounter, such as family, church members, and even the person who takes our order at the fast food drive through window.

Individuals who desire a closer walk with God, already possess him. Doherty suggested fasting not only from food, but from whatever causes us to run away from or be distracted from God and the new life that he offers. In God’s strength and his strength alone can individuals make Lent a time of deep and thorough cleansing of ourselves from anything that interferes with God being number one in their lives.

The 40-day period of Lent should include studying God’s Words. Often, when individuals study Holy Scriptures, God’s words are so powerful that individuals may not want to understand them or apply them to their lives. For example, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33, ESV). How many of us believe, accept, or apply Jesus’ message that if we seek God’s kingdom first, all else will be added to our lives?

Author: Sr. Cathrine Doherty, Canada

Why Fast in Lent?

During Lent, we open our hearts to God’s refining grace through prayer, confession, fasting, and almsgiving. Ultimately, our goal for Lent is to better-know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participate in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and attain resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:10-11). Most Christians in Western society don’t fast, that is, refrain from food for a period; yet, fasting was recommended and carried out in both the Old and New Testaments. Consider trying to fast this year and when you do, concentrate on the scriptures below:

  • “Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the LORD your God and cry out to the LORD. Alas for the day! For the day of the LORD is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes” (Joel 1:14-15 ESV).
  • “Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the LORD my God and made confession, saying, “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules”” (Daniel 9:3-5 ESV).
  • Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD your God” (Joel 2:12-14 ESV).
  • “Is not this the fast that I choose: to lose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps 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 him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh” (Isaiah 58:6-7 ESV).
  • “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God'” (Matthew 4:1-4 ESV).
  • “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18 ESV).
  • “Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:1-3 ESV).

Reflection: What’s stopping you from fasting during Lent?

A Mennonite Pastor’s view of Lent

I grew up in the Mennonite Church, a non-liturgical church.  In fact, I didn’t even know what a liturgy was, what the lectionary was. In my church, the emphasis was that we do only what is commanded in the Bible.  Later, as an ordained minister in the Mennonite Church, I became involved in local ministerial associations, thus, had contact with ministers of many denominations. Through these contacts, I participated in services that were more liturgical and began to look more closely at the lectionary and what it meant for those who followed it.

Later in my ministry, the Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries, an agency of the Mennonite Church that provided educational and worship resources to congregations, began to offer worship aids for the Sundays in Advent and Lent.  These aids were based on the Revised Common Lectionary. I began to use these resources and found them very meaningful for worship and preaching.

What I began to appreciate about the lectionary was that it provided a way to think Christianly about the days of our lives. This tied in well with the Mennonite emphasis on following Christ daily in life. As I think through Lent in my non-liturgical church, it provides an opportunity to reflect on exactly the meaning of following Christ daily in life. There are those of us who do give up “something” for Lent as a way of reminding ourselves of the discipleship we are called to as followers and worshipers of Jesus. It is so easy to take our life in/with Christ and his people for granted. The forty days of Lent models the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness when he grappled with what doing the will of God the Father would mean for him. Lent give us the same opportunity to wrestle with what following Jesus will mean for us in the days of our lives.

Hans Denck, an early Anabaptist leader made a comment that has become a common quote among Mennonites: “No one can know Christ truly unless you follow him daily in life.” Mennonites aver that no one can follow Christ unless you truly know him.  Lent offers a unique time to reflect on what Denck is saying to us.  One way that Denck’s quote helps me during Lent is that it reminds me of my commitment to Christ and to reflect on both my failings in that commitment and my faithfulness.

Denck reminds me and all of us that there is an intimate link between truly knowing Christ and following him.  This link is so intricate that it is hard to say which comes first.  We can say that coming to personal knowledge of Christ must precede following Him. I will concede that is true.  However, if such personal knowledge doesn’t lead us to following Him daily in our lives than our knowledge is of little value in life.  I’m not suggesting salvation by works, only that any true, vital relationship involves knowledge and commitment.

Reflection: As we come to Lent, we hear both the words of our Lord to take up my cross and follow him (Mark 8:34) and the words of Denck calling us to a living relationship with God that enables us to follow Christ faithfully in life.

 *Written by The Reverend Dennis Kuhns, Mennonite Pastor, Harrisonburg, VA.

Lent, A Season of Paradox

The season of Lent is the crux of my relationship with Jesus Christ. It is a season of joyful contradictions! It is an observance of the lifelessness of my sin and the vitality of God’s forgiveness; an observance of darkness juxtaposed with an infinite lightness. Lent calls me to take a painful, yet joyful, examination of my sinful nature; painful because my sin is real, joyful because Christ’s mercy is real. Lent takes me through an honest examination of the darkness of my soul while reflecting on God’s powerful desire and ability to cleanse me of this darkness.

Where I live, usually Lent starts in late winter, weather is cold, trees bare, and grass brown. This grimness represents the coldness of my soul trapped in sin. Lent calls me to examine this darkness in a healthy way. Rather than condemning myself, I take an honest look at the times I have strayed from God. While it is dark and grim, there is hope in the fact that I don’t delve into this alone. Christ is always with me.

While I try to reflect on my sinfulness throughout the year, Lent is a sacred time, calling me to a deeper discernment of my sin. I fast on Fridays during Lent because it is part of my heritage growing up as Catholic. A tradition that easily conveys to the home I have found in the Lutheran church. When I fast, I become more alive in Christ by becoming more alert to why he had to die for my salvation.

If I’m not aware of my sin, I’m not fully aware of the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice. I enter prayer more deeply during this season. A solitary exploration of my sinfulness is a dangerous journey resulting in much despair. A prayerful exploration of my sinfulness, however, is an enriching journey resulting in joy and hope. With Christ, through prayer, I take a Lenten journey downward into my sin.

The meaning of Lent for me is found where the depth of my sinful nature intersects with the height of God’s forgiveness. It is a paradox of polarities that intersect; a joyful paradox where God’s love lifts me out of sin. It is love only received through the salvation of Christ.

As Lent moves towards Easter, my prayer grows stronger and more hopeful as trees bloom and grass turns green. As the season of spring heals the earth from the damage of winter, the season of Lent heals my soul from the damage of sin. Christ does the healing; yet, the season of Lent calls my attention to his healing. My focus shifts from necessary exploration of sin and need for repentance to a deep feeling of God’s love and forgiveness.

Reflection: God has designed the season of Lent for Christians to joyfully and painfully reflect on who we are what God has done for us. Lent gives me the opportunity and grace to explore this mystery in a deep, prayerful way.

 

*Written by Rick Robers, President, Church Council, St. John Lutheran Church, Roanoke, Virginia.

Scripture for Ash Wednesday

Scripture for Ash Wednesday

Epistle Reading – Hebrews 12:1-4, 12-13 ESV: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. Therefore, lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

 Gospel Reading – Luke 18:9-14 ESV: He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Meaning of Ashes

 

Ashes are the quintessential symbol of Lent. Surprisingly, the first dictionary definition for ash isn’t the technical definition, i.e., “the solid residue left when combustible materials is thoroughly burned;” but, the figurative definition “something that symbolizes grief, repentance, or humiliation.”15 Dictionary compilers must have understood the importance of Lent in Christian churches.

Ashes symbolize sorrow for sins. Ashes mean we mourn and repent of sins. Scott Malloy16 summarized, “Ashes are signs that we are all in this sin business together, and that the difference between the good in us and the bad in us is sometimes frightfully thin. We often fall short of the Faith we claim.” Ancient Israelites believed that mankind was made from dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27). When they mourned, they put ashes on their heads and often wore sackcloth (2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1-3). Ashes were an external symbol that they inwardly repented some actions or sins (Job 42:6, Matthew 11:21, Luke 10:13).

At one time, ashes marked on the forehead of worshipers were given only to public penitents brought before the church. Over time, others wanted to show their humility and affection for the penitents. They asked for ashes to identify themselves with sinners and as sinners. Now, the imposition of ashes is extended to the whole congregation. Congregates who receive ashes know their own sins grieve God. God knows the secrets of each hearts, sins contemplated as well as done. Many remember the prayer of King David who said, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10 ESV).

Traditionally, the ashes for Ash Wednesday (first day of Lent) were made from leftover palm leaves from the previous year. More recently, churches purchase ashes from church supply houses. Almost all suppliers of ashes to churches advertise ashes as coming from burnt palm leaves.

Although the symbolism of ashes for mourning and repentance is pervasive throughout the Bible, Isaiah provided God’s promise of the future glory of Israel and by extension the Christian church. In relation to ashes, Isaiah wrote that the future Messiah will give his people a beautiful headdress instead of ashes (on our foreheads), the oil of gladness instead of mourning (Isaiah 61:3). True, Christians experience the mourning of repentance; but, mourning isn’t the end in the road. The end is that we will be called “oaks of righteousness, a glorified planting” of God. At Jesus’ second coming to earth, he will be glorified and so will members of his church.

 

A Sin Sick Soul

The Word of the Lord: Genesis 43.11: Then their father Israel said to them, “If it must be, then do this: Put some of the best products of the land in your bags and take them down to the man as a gift—a little balm and a little honey, some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds.

Meditation: Jacob was an elderly man with a sick soul, conceivably a sin sick soul. Certainly, some of Jacob’s younger-day actions were sins and brought him grief. At the time of this story, Jacob lived in Canaan which was experiencing a famine. Jacob decided to send his sons to Egypt to buy desperately need grain to feed his family. This was the second time that Jacob ordered his sons to Egypt to buy grain.

To Jacob’s knowledge his favorite son (Joseph) was dead. Another son (Simeon) was kept as a hostage by the Egyptians when Jacob’s sons went to Egypt the first time to buy grain.

Jacob’s remaining sons were afraid to go a second time into Egypt. The Egyptian in charge of selling grain told them only to come back if they had their youngest brother (Benjamin) with them. Jacob can’t fathom losing a third son, especially the son who was now his favorite. Nonetheless, because he wanted food for his family, Jacob ordered his sons to go to Egypt and buy grain. Jacob sent Benjamin with them.

Most likely the balm that Jacob ordered sent to Egypt was the balm of Gilead. It grew in Canaan. Medically, balms are healing or soothing substance, i.e., ointment, salve, or cream They can be analgesic and give pain relief.   Figuratively, balms have the effects of calming, soothing, comforting, and providing solace and consolation.

In today’s society, many individuals hurt spiritually.  Much of the spiritual pain is the result of personal choices.  Mine were. When I left home as a young woman, I was determined to live life my way.  I resonated to a song popular at the time—Helen Reddy’s, “I Did it My Way.”

I made a conscious decision not to follow God.  One of my thoughts was that I would consign God only  to Sunday at church, in other words, departmentalize God.   The remainder of the week, I would live the way I wanted to live. I said to myself, “When I’m older, I’ll get back to God.”

In retrospect, I am stunned at my arrogant thoughts and actions.  My rebellion against God caused me great spiritual, mental, and physical pain.  At the time, I felt like nothing would calm, comfort, and console me.

Amazingly God wasn’t surprised by our rebellions. God is never surprised by anything we do or anything that Jacob did. God is there waiting for us, as he waited for Jacob, to return to him.

Do you remember the African American spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead?” The refrain goes something like this:

There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole.

There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin sick soul.

 Reflection: Have you ever experienced a sin-sick soul?  The solution is God, not some soothing ointment or, perhaps, even emotional healing drugs.

Exposing, Exfoliating

The Word of the Lord 

Genesis 30.37-40: Jacob, however, took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted. Jacob set apart the young of the flock by themselves, but made the rest face the streaked and dark-colored animals that belonged to Laban. Thus he made separate flocks for himself and did not put them with Laban’s animals.

 Mediation  

 After Laban agreed to Jacob’s proposal to grow his personal flock by Jacob keeping only spotted or striped sheep and goats, Laban moved animals with these characteristics three days away from Jacob’s location.  That left Jacob with only solid-colored animals. Laban believed that no or few future offspring in Jacob’s flock would be spotted or multi-colored. Laban believed that once again he outsmarted Jacob.

Normally, the oriental plane tree that Jacob used to influence the color of his flocks doesn’t grow in the United States. Jacob used it in Paddan Aram that is now in Syria. The tree’s bark exfoliates naturally giving the tree a spotted black-white appearance.

Exfoliate means to cast off in scales of thin layers. Plane trees cast off pieces of bark, so the trunk and branches look spotted.

Most of us wish we could exfoliate, cast off some of our foibles and quirks like the plane tree sheds its bark; however, just the opposite occurs. The parts of our character and personality that we want to get rid of, are those parts that seem to cling. I’ve concluded that  trying to get rid of the un-beautiful parts of my being is part of Christian maturity, i.e., becoming progressively more like Christ.

Some days we want to rush forward toward Christ likeness so we can become pure and clean. But total purity and cleanliness aren’t going to happen on earth no matter how much we shed old behaviors and put on new ones. We’re human, which means that we will never reach perfection in this life no matter how smooth our skin appears.

God expects us to struggle as we move forward, as we move nearer to Christ. Do you ever become impatient with yourself and ask, “Why don’t you just make me righteous, God? I’m willing. Just do it, God, so I don’t have to expend all this effort.”

Reflection: Ponder why God doesn’t make us, force us, take all actions necessary to achieve the character of Christ here on earth.

Who’s Watching You?

The almond tree symbolizes “watching;” however, the first time the almond tree is named in Genesis, the setting is Paddan Aram. There, Jacob used almond branches to attempt to influence the color of animals in his flock.

The Word of the Lord: Genesis 30.37-40: Jacob, however, took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted. Jacob set apart the young of the flock by themselves, but made the rest face the streaked and dark-colored animals that belonged to Laban. Thus he made separate flocks for himself and did not put them with Laban’s animals.

The second time the almond tree is named the setting is Canaan. Jacob directs his sons to take almonds, one of the best products of Canaan, as a gift to the Egyptian in charge of selling grain.

Genesis 44.11: Put some of the best products of the land in your bags and take them down to the man as a gift—a little balm and a little honey, some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds.

Meditation: Few plants have the important symbolism of almond trees in the Old Testament. Almond trees encompass buds, flowers, and fruit (almond nut).  In addition to the two Genesis examples, almond tree products appeared elsewhere in the Bible. In the Tent of Meeting, the original menorah had almond buds carved on its branches and central stem. Aaron’s staff budded, bloomed, and produced almonds after a night in in front of the Ark of the Covenant.

When Jeremiah was called to be God’s prophet, God showed Jeremiah an almond branch and asked Jeremiah what he saw. Jeremiah answered God that he saw an almond branch. God commended Jeremiah’s response and said that he was watching to see that his word is fulfilled (Jeremiah 1.12); thus, almonds are associated with God watching mankind. Job called God a “watcher of mankind” (Job 7.20)

Daily new events bombard our world. Currently, a worldwide viral pandemic is occurring. How rapidly the virus spread over the globe. Each day, there are more diagnosed cases and deaths in the world and in my country. Hopefully, we have all read Revelation sufficiently to not be surprised. Pandemics, reduced commerce, and collapsed economic systems are signals God gives us so we  repent and turn to him.

As the almond tree demonstrated in biblical times, God is watching to verify that his word is fulfilled on earth. What  occurs now in the world is an example of God word being fulfilled.

One part of Jesus’ message causes me sadness: “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24.12-13). Each of us must work so that our love for others—regardless of country, race, gender, sexual preference, etc., doesn’t  grow cold.

We need to monitor our hearts and evaluate how we behave. About 30 years ago, I realized that I had a hard, even callous,  heart. I prayed that God would soften my heart. Since that time God changed my heart of stone to a heart filled with compassion.  My husband often comments on what a compassionate person I am.  Yet, decades ago he never made that comment about me. You can offer God the same prayer—to soften our hearts—God answer that prayer.

Reflection: How are you keeping your love for others warm? How do you continually evaluate your love for others?