Devotions for Lent 2023
The church season of Lent is a time of spiritual preparation before Easter, lasting 40 days from Ash Wednesday (Feb. 22) to Holy Thursday (April 6), not counting Sundays. During Lent, many Christians practice repentance and spiritual discipline. Over the next few weeks, students, faculty and staff will offer devotions to draw us together as a community to think about four main Christian practices: prayer, serving, reconciling and fasting.
“The Ultimate Servant-Leader”
“‘Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’” — Mark 10:43-45
Lent is perhaps the most humbling season of the church year. The season even kicks off with a reminder that we are nothing more than dust, and to dust we shall return. The weeks that follow Ash Wednesday and precede Easter are designed to place pointed emphasis on fasting, prayer, reconciliation and serving. Each of these requires us to muster a good deal of humility to pursue meaningfully. And few things dish out humility quite like the realization of how easy it is to fall short in any, or all, of these.
As Christians, though, it is important to remember that, when God calls us to humble ourselves in service — to Him, to others and to His creation — He does not do so from the top down, as in an edict. He calls to us from our level, leading by example. One of the greatest gifts of Lent, next to the reality of salvation, is the realization that God humbled Himself to show us the way.
In these 40 days, we are reminded of Jesus’ humanity, and how, despite His divinity, He humbles Himself in service. In His birth, He comes among us in humble form, under the most humble earthly circumstances. In Luke 4, Jesus humbled Himself to fast, and experienced and overcame temptation.
In John 13, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet after the Last Supper, saying, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.”
And in His crucifixion, He humbles Himself to the greatest possible extent, suffering humiliation and an excruciating death on the cross. Again, this was an act of service to us, and the greatest act, at that.
Jesus’ leadership is, in its entirety, a leadership through service. God calls us to serve having already walked the walk. He humbled Himself. He became human. He experienced our journey. He gave His life as a service to us. In doing so, He freed us to serve, not out of fear or compulsion, but out of love.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, thank you for blessing us with the way, with truth, and with life. Strengthen us, during Lent and always, to follow the example of service provided for us in Christ Jesus. Amen.
And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. — Ephesians 6:18
At the end of the day, it is always interesting to think back over the day’s events. The various conversations we have been involved in. There are the classrooms where we are seeking to impart some course information, the casual hellos, the meetings where business was discussed, or the lunch break where colleagues and students “just talk.”
Many times, these conversations end with a resolution to a problem, new information, an insight not previously thought of, or the worst case, frustration. In today’s world, we can never avoid the electronic, sterile conversations via emails, intents and tone neglected from the nuances of the exchange. These conversations are opportunities to be present with someone and hear their concerns and get their advice.
It is a blessing where a conversation takes place with a trusted and valued friend, their view a more neutral one that gives insight and guidance. A conversation that brings calm and peace as a burden is shared and a course for action made.
The gift of prayer is that blessing. Psalm 17:6 says, ”I call on you, my God, for you will answer me, turn your ear to me and hear my prayer.” This is our opportunity to have that trusted friend who will give us insight and guidance. I have long believed in the “God whisper.” That feeling or sudden realization of a solution, an action that must be taken, or a result that previously you were searching for, but God allowed us to suddenly appreciate this conclusion. That idea that seemed so remote to suddenly made sense as the best action. Prayer is our conversation with God, but the quiet, meditative moments are when we listen. We can all appreciate that God has the capacity for soft “God whispers,” or the He can also get our attention with a more robust answer that will startle us into listening.
The phrase “do not be afraid” appears in the Bible 365 times. An interesting coincidence, considering there are 365 days in the year. God's encouragement is especially evident in Psalm 23:4 , which reads: "Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me." This doesn’t say there will be no trials in your life, there will be no difficulties, no pain. It simply says do not be in fear. The elimination or reduction in our fear comes from the blessing of prayer. When we form a healthy relationship with God and understand His eternal grace and mercy, we realize that there is no real need for fear. The God of our mercy is with us in our present and is waiting for us in the future. And through His grace, He has forgiven our past.
Prayer isn't convincing God to do our will, but aligning ourselves with His will, which requires overcoming evil with good. Prayer gives that “big picture” view of our narrow lives. The Lenten season is a fantastic time to pause and remember the incredible sacrifice Christ made for us when He died on the cross. To reflect on how Jesus took our punishment so we wouldn’t have to, and how He made a way for us to be restored to a right relationship with the God who loves us.
What a wonderful gift and blessing it is that the God or grace and mercy is ever near. To seek is wisdom, guidance and reassuring love is but a prayer away.
Let us pray: I confess I tend to worry or play it small, preferring to stick with what feels safe and comfortable. I doubt what You can or will do. But God, You created the Universe! You conquered death! There’s nothing You can’t do. Please strengthen my faith and help me to trust in You for every one of my needs today. Help me not to get stressed out, worried or frantic by all the problems I see around me. Instead, please give me a sense of peace and calm that comes from knowing You are in control. Please help me trust in You in all things, even when the road isn’t easy or clear. In Your name I pray. Amen.
For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. — Isaiah 52:2
We live in an age of surface impressions. With enough effort, at least we are told, anyone can become a star, or rather an influencer. Learn a few tricks of the light and some basic video editing, and you are on your way to being known. Even in our own Newberry College catalog, we have a course that teaches students “how to develop their personal brand.” Success these days means making a strong impression one way or another.
Because our culture demands that we brand ourselves, we cannot avoid it at some level. But we should not mistake having an image for making a contribution.
This is true even when we are engaged in some sort of giving back to the world. Because “volunteer work looks good on a résumé,” some people do community service just for the credit and the chance to snap a pic. Making a positive impact on the world is important and gratifying. But it is not always fun or photo-ready, and it often requires us to get our hands dirty — really dirty, both literally and figuratively.
This is especially true when service to our neighbor gives way to engaging with our neighbor in a relationship of mutuality, especially if it’s a neighbor with whom we disagree. The work of reconciling — one of the disciplines of Lent alongside prayer, fasting, and service — is often slow and arduous, not like a “one and done” service project (though those are valuable in their own right). The work of reconciling can feel like growing something young and green out of dry ground, the push of new life a sign of hope but also something still vulnerable to the inhospitable conditions in which it grows.
If prayer and fasting are Lenten disciplines that connect us to God, then service and reconciling are Lenten practices that call us to engage with one another. True reconciling requires yet another relationship: my relationship with myself. This is because reconciliation calls for self-reflection and humility as much as generosity and respect for my neighbor. The work of reconciliation requires me to question myself: how I see the world, the ways I do harm, the ways I fail to honor the dignity and worth of other people. It asks me to face all the things about myself that no filter can hide.
Yes, we live in a world that rewards surface impressions. We also live in a world that amplifies conflict instead of nurturing connection and asking us to work together across our differences to heal the world. There is no better time to consider the Lenten call to the work of reconciling. It is work that requires patience, persistence, and courage, with one another and with ourselves. But the Christian tradition tells the story of a God who has modeled reconciliation for us and who also calls us to the work of reconciling.
How can you take one step today toward a practice of reconciliation?
Let us pray: Holy One, in a world of infotainment that amplifies conflict and encourages us to live on the surface of things, grant us the courage and conviction to “go deep,” into ourselves and with one another. Grant us spirits of persistence and compassion to push us through the difficult moments of reconciling work and spirits of gratitude and joy for the healing that is possible when we ground our reconciling work in you, the Holy Reconciler. Amen.
A friend of mine sent me a brief article last week in which Kitty Stafford, a nursing director of adult services at Cone Health, highlighted the health benefits of giving to others. Among the reasons she gave were lowered blood pressure and stress, less depression and anxiety, and increased self-esteem. She also listed four reasons to begin a tradition of giving – feeling happy, good health, social connection, and that others seeing you give might encourage them to do the same. I don’t know if this article was based on research or observation. It was interesting.
What interested me the most about the article was that it described how giving benefits us. For me, it raised an important question. Is the only reason we should give to others, because it is good for us? As Christians we are challenged to give, to serve for a different reason. Giving, serving others, is an act of love. It is reflection of our faith in Christ. Our commandment is to love one another – to show that love through giving of ourselves to others, of serving others.
We are all aware of the challenges faced by members of our community, our country, our world. Many are searching for meaning, commitment, belonging, being accepted. We see hunger, homelessness, and the need of medical care. We see those seeking to improve their lives. Are we doing our part? Are we following the life of Christ?
Isaiah 25:4 reminds us of our responsibility to our neighbors: “For you have been a stronghold to the poor, a stronghold to the needy in his distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat; for the breath of the ruthless is like a storm against a wall.” Isaiah 58:10 told us, well before the article I read was written, that "if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.”
We are saved by the grace of God. We are redeemed by the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. It is nothing we did. We cannot claim credit for our salvation. Lent is a season of remembrance. Remembering the life of Christ. Remembering His unselfish service to others. Remembering what He gave to those around Him. Remembering His ultimate sacrifice – giving His life that we may have eternal life. It is a time of looking forward, of growing in our relationship to Christ, of looking inward. Is our salvation reflected in our daily life, in our service, our giving to others? Lent is a time to challenge ourselves to live lives of service to others.
Especially in this season of Lent, let us pray: Father God, help me live my life in service to others. Help me remember that in serving others, I am serving You. Help me to know that serving others includes those little things I do and say that are a blessing, even if it is known only to them. Help me to serve others without the need or desire for recognition. Help me to serve, not because it is good for me, but because it is the light of your love for me shining like a candle in the dark. Amen.
"What does it mean to serve?"
In this season of Lent, we look at Isaiah 52:13-53:12. In this passage, we hear about Jesus and the suffering that He is to undergo. In Isaiah 52:13, it says, “see my servant shall prosper. He shall be exalted and lifted up and shall be very high.” To me, this is talking about Jesus and how He’s going to prosper after He pays the ultimate price. It talks about Jesus’ life and how He is seen by others and how He will suffer and carry our infirmities and our diseases, but it says by His bruises we are healed.
Jesus came to serve us. His sole purpose was to save us and serve us. As I sat and read this chapter in Isaiah, I sit in awe and think about what this truly means. We say it in church and read it in the Bible that God sent His only Son to bear our sins so we can have eternal life. But I’ve never really thought about how Jesus served me. Just a lowly woman, He came and served me so that I can have life after death. Jesus carries all of my diseases and infirmities. He is stricken down and afflicted, but because of His bruises, I am healed and have eternal life due to His service to me. To me, this is deeper and it struck a chord with me.
As many of you know, I am a nurse by trade, and I serve others daily. I’ve worked a long time on oncology and as a nurse, I have held the hand of the dying as they take their last breaths, I have comforted the sick, and I have seen life begin. I answered this call a long time ago. Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? And I took this call to be a nurse and serve the sick. I knew what I was signing up for when I took this on, but I ask myself: was Jesus given the choice? If I was Jesus, would I have answered this call to serve? Jesus took this on knowing that ultimately, this would all lead to His death. Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice: death. We all serve daily. No matter what our job is, or what we do daily, we are constantly serving others. As a teacher, I serve my students, I serve my fellow faculty members, and I serve Newberry College. We serve our neighbors and family, we give and help each other, but what does the word "serve" mean to each of us?
I challenge you today to think about what serving means to you. To Jesus, serving meant dying on the cross and bearing our bruises so that we are healed and have eternal life. What and who are you going to serve? How are you willing to serve God?
I would like to close in a prayer. Dear Heavenly Father, as I have sat here today and read Isaiah 52:13-53:12, I sit in awe. I appreciate Jesus’ service of everlasting life and dying on the cross to serve everyone. Thank you, God, for this amazing and ultimate sacrifice of love. I pray, God, that each of us learns to serve others, and to do this in Jesus name. Amen.
"Praying Without Ceasing"
Sometimes the Scripture give us a command that is easy to understand but hard to do, for example, “Love Your Neighbor.” God obviously hasn’t met some of my neighbors, but there is no question I understand what his commandment asks of me.
Other times the Scripture directs us to do something that seems impossible to do, such as “pray without ceasing.” Scott Hubbard, editor of the website “Desiring God,” notes: “This command from God is not a guilt trip, a monkish dream, or a summons to drudgery.” But on its face, it seems impossible. I can’t spend all day on my knees, eyes closed, head bowed and still live life. We have families, jobs, college and other responsibilities. Yet, the Scripture states, pray without ceasing.
"See that none render evil for evil unto any man, but ever follow that which is good, both among yourselves and with all men. Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you." — 1 Thessalonians 5:15-18
Another translation states “pray continually.” Another translation, “praying perseveringly," yet another, “pray regularly," and another "consistently."
Since I am directed to pray without ceasing, continually, perseveringly, regularly and consistently, and yet I can’t stay on my knees, head bowed, eyes closed every minute of every day, there must be another way of praying.
In my life, I have found the concept of praying without ceasing is directly related to denying oneself. “If anyone would come after me let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Note the time descriptions, “without ceasing” and “daily” are ongoing.
Praying without ceasing seems impossible because we make prayer an event. I practiced this type of faith for a long time. Believing was an event, usually during Sunday morning services. Praying was a moment within that service, knees bent, eyes closed. That was usually followed by a guilt trip because “deny himself” was confused with self-denial. Self-denial became guilt for doing acts on the prohibited list of my denomination. I got so tired of being on this spiritual treadmill, I treated church like a gym, joined, used it a few times, then quit going.
Then a mentor of mine shared 1 Thessalonians 5:15-18 and Luke 9:23 with me, and showed me that prayer and faith are not events. To be genuine they have to become a way of life. A way of life that is so very “daily.” Each day starts with “denying myself,” which is a challenge because I can be awfully full of me. It doesn’t mean check the list for things my church tells me to do, or more often not to do. It starts with me nailing ego, selfishness, self-indulgence to the cross. It requires me to replace “me” with him — Jesus. “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless, I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” — Galatians 2:20.
When it is not about me, but about him, my mind and heart are focused on him. What would Jesus want, how would Jesus live, and what would Jesus do? To answer those questions, I have to be in constant conversation with him. He has to be on my mind. Jesus has to be the focus of my heart.
Praying without ceasing becomes a way of life, not a series of events. I pray without ceasing because I am carrying on a conversation with my best friend. Think about it, conversations with best friends are easy, ongoing, and meaningful. Conversations with our best friends make us thankful. Conversations with our best friends help us to rejoice even in bad circumstances.
When Paul encourages us to “pray without ceasing,” he is asking us to have an honest, transparent, and continuous conversation with Jesus. When we struggle with this, which I often do, it is because something else has become more important than my relationship with Jesus. As soon as I deny whatever I have placed above Jesus, and take up the cross, the conversation flows again. Praying without ceasing becomes as simple as taking a walk and having a conversation with someone I love to be with.
"Try it God’s Way"
In verses 35–36 of Romans 8, Paul painted a picture of Christian life that can best be described as grisly. To paint this picture of Christian life, Paul used the following words: tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword, being killed, and sheep to be slaughtered (taken together, these are the vicissitudes of life). Romans 8:35–36 provides the context for Romans 8:28, the subject of this devotion.
After painting this gory picture of Christian life, in verse 37 Paul wrote, “In all these things we are more than conquerors.” Christians, in other words, are not just conquerors; they are more than conquerors. Tribulation and distress and persecution and famine and nakedness and peril and sword (the vicissitudes of life) are not just defeated; they are more than defeated: they are turned into servants for our good. Romans 8:28 means that God is so completely in charge of the world that all the things that happen to Christians are ordered in such a way that those things serve our good. Tribulation and distress and persecution and famine and nakedness and peril and sword (the vicissitudes of life) all work together for the good of those of us who love God.
The hope of Christians, admittedly unseen, is not the expectation that we will escape distress or peril or hunger or slaughter. Instead, it is that Almighty God will make every one of our agonies an instrument of his mercy for us and to do us good. Joseph said to his brothers who had sold him into slavery, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” The point being made is, with every calamity faced or experienced by those who love God, no matter the intention of the evil one, God meant it for good!
Several years ago, hired to take an organization through bankruptcy, Romans 8:28 became definitional that as a leader my fundamental responsibility is to make things better for people. Therefore, providing good service to customers and employees became, for all employees and leaders, the mantra and guiding goal. Instead of bankruptcy, the organization thrived. I reasoned that the infinitely wise, infinitely powerful Almighty God pledges to make everything beneficial to his people! Not just nice things, but horrible things, like tribulation and distress and peril and slaughter. Why not me? I am his son. True Christians, you are the sons and daughters of God!
Acknowledging Jesus as savior and the model sent by God, I decided, as his disciple, to live inside God’s massive Romans 8:28 promise. My life is as solid as the rock of Gibraltar; so too became the aspirational aims I established for the organizations, employees, and other organizational stakeholders. Inside the walls of Romans 8:28, nothing can be blown over. Outside Romans 8:28, all is confusion and anxiety and fear and uncertainty and straw houses of deadening drugs and tin roofs of retirement plans and cardboard fortifications of anti-ballistic missiles and a thousand other substitutes for Romans 8:28. Once you walk through the door of love into the structure of Romans 8:28, everything changes. Stability and depth and freedom, in the face of organizational vicissitudes take up residence. You simply can’t be blown over anymore. The confidence that a sovereign God governs for your good all the pain and all the pleasure that you will ever experience is an absolutely incomparable refuge and security and hope and power in your life.
What I say now in closing, is not hubris, but testimony to the beneficial reality of submitting to God. Yes, I can provide tangible, documented evidence of just a few outcomes/good that resulted when I operated in love and purpose for God. For the last thirty years as a city/county manager, there has been no tax increases recommended for the public organizations I led, employee compensations increased annually during my tenure beyond cost-of-living adjustments, customer service increased, infrastructures have been rebuilt, and every organization led experienced a AAA rating and major surpluses, even a tax rebate.
I tried it first my way; I then tried it God’s way. God’s way worked and despite so many messes along the way, major good was the result. More than 10 individuals with whom I’ve associated are today city/county managers or major heads of major agencies. God did it! I am especially proud that each gives God the credit. No promise in all the world surpasses the height and breadth and weight of Roman 8:28.
“One Sure Thing”
They say that only two things in life are certain: death and taxes. Given the stories we’ve all heard about nimble accountants being able to avoid taxes, however, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the only certainty in life is death. How and when it comes remains a mystery, of course, but that it comes — that death will come — is for certain. Human mortality stands as not only a physiological inevitability but also a biblical declaration. The writer of Ecclesiastes, a book that ponders the nature and meaning of life, says it this way:
"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 dust, and all turn to dust again." — Ecclesiastes 3:19-20
In other words, things die. Ash Wednesday, more than any other day in the church year, calls us to face this fact. No denying it today. “Remember that you are dust,” the liturgy says, “and to dust you shall return.” We are mortals. Somehow, some time, via tragic accident, cruel cancer, or insidious COVID, homicide, genocide or suicide, at ripe old age or life cut short, the grim reaper will come. Flesh and bone will decay into dust and ashes.
Yet, if Scripture demands that we acknowledge our mortality, it also declares that we recognize a truth, as C.S. Lewis said it, “from before the dawn of time.” Out of the dust the Creator fashions life, and out of the ashes rises the phoenix. Ancient Greeks passed down the story of the phoenix, that glorious griffin-like creature that would every 500 years burst into flame and disintegrate into ashes only to rise to new life more glorious still. Christians adapted that story into an image that has endured to this day to recall for us the resurrection of Jesus, the foundational proclamation of the Christian faith. To grasp the power and mystery of the resurrection requires (in some ways) a lifetime. Yet, the essence of the story resides in the earliest Christian creed: Jesus is Lord. Jesus is Lord. Jesus is Lord. Which is to say that death is potent but not sovereign. Death is inevitable but it does not have the last word. The last word belongs to the one who spoke the first word. “Let there be….” And so there was. And so there will be. The last word belongs to the Lord.
Ash Wednesday calls us to take death seriously so that we might take life seriously. Make today count. Make a life. Make friends. Make a family. Make memories. Make a difference. Death marks our mortality but not our finality. Whatever life after death looks like, it rests with the one who gave life in the first place. So rest in that hope. God’s got this. For you. For me. For sure. Amen.
Let us pray: In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend ourselves to you, Almighty God. Help us to live this mortal life in the paths of your will, and when the day comes that death confronts us, bless us and keep us steadfast in your sovereign power and gracious peace. Amen.