40 Devotional eadings for Lent
By Rev. Lawrence Keeler
South Baldface Mountain, New Hampshire
Stone cairns mark all trails above tree line in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. These stone markers provide guidance in the midst of the wilderness. So, too, one hopes, the living stones described in these reflections.
When I went on retreat at a Benedictine monastery, the monks offered lectures early each day on contemplative prayer. The talks, given by a quiet, good-humored monk, were filled with thoughtful advice. I remember the old fellow’s first point. All contemplative prayer, he advised, begins and builds from two questions: Who is God? Who am I? The answers to those questions, answers that one can never fully understand in a lifetime of trying, are grist for the contemplative mill. From them, he said, one can find an awareness that reaches beyond normal awareness. My greatest hope is that these reflections might help others as they ponder the two questions.
“But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member…”
1 Corinthians 12: 24
Some years ago, shortly after I was appointed pastor at an inner-city church, I noticed a strange couple who showed up each Sunday, Esther and Clarence.
Each of them struggled with a handicap. It was obvious that Clarence was mentally challenged. He was barely able to deal with anything on his own. He had difficulty walking because he had an artificial foot. Esther, too, had problems with her legs and feet, and I later learned that she had a terrible disease that would eventually leave her in a wheelchair.
I was pleased to see that my congregation accepted them, even though it was clear neither would ever help much with the work of the church. They were very poor. Neither could be a leader. They often needed the church’s help. As the months and years passed, it became obvious that Clarence was getting weaker. His illness was rapidly progressing, and he soon died.
As I met with Esther to prepare for the pauper’s funeral, I learned more about her. She had met Clarence when he was a resident at a home for men with severe learning disabilities. It was a terrible place. Not clean. The residents were confined or restrained much of each day. Clarence had lived there for years, and no one expected him to ever leave. He couldn’t function on his own. But Esther fell in love with him and married him and brought him into her own home, where she had cared for him and shared life with him for some decades.
A nurse from that state-run home approached me after the funeral to tell me she had appreciated my comments.
“You were right when you described their life together,” she said. “Esther brought Clarence out of hell and into heaven.”
Now alone, Esther moved into some low-income housing where the security was not good. Within a few months, someone attacked her in her apartment, raped her, beat her, and took everything of value that she owned.
Through all this Esther came, week after week, to church, never angry, never bitter, always ready to pray.
When Christmas came each year, she couldn’t afford Christmas cards or stamps or even blank paper, so she gathered discarded mailings with one blank side from wastebaskets and created Christmas scenes on the back using crayons. Her cards looked very much like the drawings of small children. Esther hand-delivered her folded pieces of discarded mail to all her friends in the church.
I don’t know if you can imagine how beautiful such a card is. It became a badge of honor to receive one of Esther’s cards.
When my church needed money to improve the church building, Esther was among the first to give. I remember her envelope, a message scrawled on the back in her childlike hand. The envelope contained $1.93.
“I hope this can help make my church a better place,” her note said.
Esther, I came to understand, had received from the Holy Spirit an incredible gift of faithfulness. She lived out her faith every day, and many of her days were very hard. Yet she always smiled, always thanked God, always prayed. Her gift was her life lived out before others.
Would that I had such faith!
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. How do you exhibit faith?
“The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the wadi.”
1 Kings 17: 6
The day after I arrived in Haiti, our host took us to meet Pastor Zachary. I was leading a team of ministers-in-training, and we loaded into an old pickup and jounced our way up the mountainside to his village. His church was bare-bones. No doors, no glass, only an open concrete-block building made of very low-quality blocks. Planks provided the only seating. Pastor Zachary sat at a worn table and spoke for 20 minutes about his dream. He was rail-thin and obviously in pain. He apologized. My feet hurt all the time, he said. He had set up shop years before beneath a tree, teaching the Bible. He gathered a few followers, and a mission team came to help. They showed a film about Jesus, using generators, for the village had no electricity. His little flock grew. The mission helped him buy 5 acres and erected the open-air building.
Now he dreamed of opening a school. He didn’t ask for money. He just told his dream.
We took up a collection, leaving what we had, perhaps $50 or $60. Later, Wilbert, the head of the mission, told me Pastor Zachary had awakened in tears that day because he had no food for his children. As on many mornings, he rose and went to his devotions, which led him to 1 Kings 17, and he literally received a vision of Elijah the prophet, hiding in a dry riverbed where the ravens brought him food. Then, spiritually fed, he put aside his pain and turned to his work.
“You flew into Haiti and gave him enough,” Wilbert said, “to feed his family for four months.”
Later, my group discussed Pastor Zachary. It was a painful talk because every one of us had a small church that was struggling financially. Finally, almost reluctantly, we agreed to try to raise $3,000 so Zachary could open a school. When I returned home, I hesitantly put a tiny article in the back of our newsletter, explaining that I had committed to raise $500 from our church. As I did so, I worried about the impact that plea might have, because we were struggling.
Some weeks later, an envelope arrived in the mail. It was a small envelope, with the church’s address scribbled in pencil. It contained just two small pieces of paper. The first was a wrinkled, hand-written note, and I immediately thought it would be a complaint, for so often complaints come in this form. But it was not. It was a note from a man six states away who had once attended my church and who still read the newsletter. The note was short.
“The … newsletter indicated you wanted to raise $600 (sic) to send children in Haiti to a new school. You also indicated that the churches were trying to raise enough money to put at least 100 in the school. Here’s a check for $6,000. Fill the school with God’s love – the children.”
The second piece of paper was a check for $6,000.
Over the years since, the little group of poor churches has given Pastor Zachary about $13,000. His school soon employed six and had 150 students.
It’s important that you know, however, that Pastor Zachary gave me in return something more valuable than money.
Every time I wavered in my ministry, every time I ran into a roadblock, a problem, a headache, I remembered Pastor Zachary. I remember a morning when he woke with tears running down his face. I remember the grace of God that poured over him in the midst of his deep affliction and struggle and that poured out as he spoke uncomfortably in a language not his own of what he must do.
He taught me that I might wake some morning not knowing where my next meal will come from, yet knowing God will take care of me.
Reflect on God for 10 minutes. How has God cared for you?
“Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus…”
Philippians 2: 5
In the summer of 1965, I worked for three months as a third rigger and choker-setter in a little logging camp on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska. Third riggers are, in effect, pack horses. They carry heavy things up the mountain. Rolls of cable. Fourteen-inch steel pulleys. Tools and equipment.
The first day, the boss pointed to a 300-foot roll of quarter-inch steel cable, then to a knoll about halfway up the mountain, and told me to take it there. I knew I was in trouble when I felt my guts twisting just to get if off the ground. When I finally arrived, the top third-rigger, a fellow I only know as Jess the Mexican, looked at the roll.
“Looks like somebody’s been dragging that cable,” he said.
The third riggers worked most of the time above the logging crews, moving cable and pulleys across the slope ahead of loggers. One day, we were working our way across a long, high ridge when we came to a deep, narrow chasm, cutting straight up the slope. It was at least 200 feet straight down sheer rock walls. The chasm was about 30 feet wide, and we had to somehow get to the other side.
There, right at the front edge of the cliff, a tree had fallen across the gap.
Jess and Bruce, an Olympic wrestler who was the other member of our crew, looked up the chasm at the long climb we would have to make to get around it. They looked at the log, an old rotting thing with moss growing atop it.
“I ain’t climbing half a mile,” Jess said. “We’re going across.”
I tried to persuade Jess and Bruce to go the long way, but they weren’t buying. They generously picked up all the heaviest stuff, leaving me with only one small roll of cable. Jess strolled across first. Then Bruce.
When I was a kid, I used to walk down a railroad track to the local swimming pool. I could walk a half-mile on a single rail without a stumble. Here I was supposed to walk across a foot-wide log, only 30 feet. But 200 feet of air makes a difference.
I was in luck, though. A small tree stood right at my end of the log, its branches reaching out across the chasm. I could grab a branch to balance myself as I inched out onto the log. There was only one problem. The branches only reached about eight feet out. I got to the end of the branch, holding on for dear life to a twig about as thick as a clothesline, and I froze. I’ve never been so scared in my life. My knees began to shake. I literally couldn’t move. There I was, frozen like an elephant on a tight-rope.
Jess the Mexican gave me some advice.
“That branch ain’t going to save you,” he said. “You got to let go. You can’t get across any other way.”
But logic didn’t help. I couldn’t move. Jess and Bruce soon began to laugh. The longer I stood there, knees knocking, the harder they laughed. They laughed until they literally fell down. They laughed until I had to laugh, and when I laughed, I could let go and run across the log.
That incident became a metaphor for me, a symbol of how I must live. I sometimes have to let go of things I prize because they hold me back from where I must go. My journey into ministry thus became a never-easy process of letting go. I let go of a career and a job with good income, great benefits, lots of respect. I let go of a dream home in a suburb to move into a slum. I let go of my need to be in charge at all times.
How are we to grapple with all the choices we face?
Paul tells us in clear language. Jesus gave up godhood itself to become human. Finding himself human, he obeyed. He made himself servant of all. He let go of life. He suffered. For that reason, his name is lifted above all names and every knee shall bow and every tongue confess he is Lord.
Let us try, Paul advises, to be like that.
Let us give up our preconceptions, our notions, our personal wishes, our concern for self. Let us obey God and serve, tenderly and with respect, all who come in our path. Let us pour out our lives one for the other.
We will find, in the emptying of self, real life.
Reflect on God’s giving heart for 10 minutes. What would God have you surrender today?
“Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…”
Luke 24: 31
For 31 years, as long as anyone could remember, Mabel had been the communion steward. Every month for 31 years, she had carefully filled the little shot glasses – oh, I mean the communion cups; had carefully prepared the bread, had arranged the altar, and then later had cleaned up the mess. She was 83 now. Health problems. She went into a nursing home, and the church needed a new communion steward.
The pastor did the best he could. He announced that Mabel couldn’t do the work anymore. He put an announcement in the bulletin and in the newsletter, but nobody stepped up.
The first month, it was no big problem. He asked someone to do it. They did it for one Sunday, but begged off when he asked if they would take the job. It went along that way for a few months. He would find a steward for the day, but not for the long haul. No one would take it on every month. Lots of work. No glamour.
Then, one day, the pastor went to visit Mabel. Within minutes, she asked if he had found a new communion steward.
No, he said. I’ve asked quite a bit, and a few people have done it for one Sunday at a time. But no one seems to want the job.
I don’t understand that, Mabel said. It’s a wonderful job. I felt closer to God when I was doing that job than at any other time.
What do you mean? the minister asked.
Well, she said, as I was pouring out the juice, I would see the juice and think about what Jesus did for me. I would see the blood of Jesus in the juice. And as I prepared the bread, I would remember the body of Jesus, what had been done to it. I would experience his body in that bread. I would find myself praying as I prepared the communion. I would pray a prayer of thanks for what Jesus had done for me, and I would pray that this juice might be the blood of Jesus for someone in this church.
I would think too, she said, about the people.
Who might need Jesus? I would pray that they might find him in the bread and the juice, just as I had. Then, later, as I cleaned up and put things away, I would remember who had come to communion, and I would pray for them, pray that God would touch and change and help them and heal them. I was never so close to God as when I was preparing the communion.
The pastor was touched, and he asked if he could tell her story. Yes, she said, you can tell it. He did that in the next newsletter.
Within days, four people asked to be communion stewards.
Sometimes we’re blind, and we lose our way. If you wrote a job description for a communion steward, it might be something halfway between bartender and busboy. You fill the glasses, and you clean up the mess. That minister had lost sight of the meaning, and he had asked someone to fill a job. The tasks were the same either way – you fill the cups and clean up the mess.
But the meaning. The overwhelming grace. The meaning brings life.
We all want that.
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. When did you last see, taste, or touch Jesus?