I post this picture of Pope Francis washing and kissing the feet of people on Maundy Thursday of this year as a record, a reminder to myself of what Jesus’ ongoing ministry in the world is supposed to look like. This is one of the most beautiful and true and holy pictures I’ve seen in a while. I am challenged by my brother in Christ.
Category Archives: Spiritual Formation
“So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” John 13.14 (NRSV)
March 5 of this year is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the season of Lent in the Christian calendar. Lent offers us space to reflect on our sin and Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. Through fasting and other acts of penitence we come to terms with our need for God’s grace. During these forty days we repent of our sins so we can recommit to God’s mission in the world.
Observing Lent is a deeply personal experience, but it runs the risk of becoming private. We have to acknowledge our families, communities, and churches need to repent as well. Recently I learned about a growing practice of communal Lent observation using readings, prayers, and candles. The idea is not that different than the wreaths of candles used during Advent. Whereas Advent begins in the dark and we light another candle each week until Christmas representing the growing presence of Jesus, the Lent candle cross begins fully lit and each week we extinguish another candle as we move toward Good Friday. This growing darkness reminds us we had Jesus physically with us, but we rejected and killed God incarnate. We tried to snuff out the light of the world.
A Lenten candle cross is easy enough to make. It has places for six candles, one for each Sunday in Lent.
The first Sunday begins with all six candles lit, the second Sunday with five lit, and so on. My church is going to include this observation during the season and I have written some readings and prayers for our services. I have included these readings and prayers in a PDF. Feel free to use them and adapt them however you wish. Just don’t sell them.
In a column for the Autumn 2013 issue of Prism, “Bono on Capitalism with a Conscience,” Rudy Carrasco cites Bono’s defense of capitalism as a better means of lifting people out of poverty than aid. This shift seems to have surprised some folks given Bono’s famous campaigning for increased aid and debt relief, as if these endeavors are mutually exclusive to other forms of economic development. Regardless, Bono has become a vocal supporter of capitalism. In a 2012 speech at Georgetown University, he said, “Aid is just a stopgap. Commerce [and] entrepreneurial capitalism take more people out of poverty than aid.”
Carrasco explores some of the hesitations with embracing capitalism among justice-minded folks.
I know where the ambivalence comes from. We who consider ourselves justice advocates do not subscribe to a single bottom line, the financial bottom line. We desire a multiple bottom line, one that acknowledges people, purpose, and planet alongside profit as vital components to the “life that is truly life” (1 Tim. 6:19).
Carrasco then highlights a couple of businesses with a multiple bottom line, including Broetje Orchards, which pursues “people, planet, profit, and purpose.” Expanding the bottom line beyond mere profits is an important development, one I believe makes capitalism more just and humane. In a capitalist system, businesses will succeed and fail, but if those businesses which succeed are interested in the common good as well as their own balance sheet, the negative effects of failure and success can be better mitigated.
At the same time, I do not necessarily fault justice advocates for being hesitant about fully embracing capitalism as it currently stands. I would venture to guess the vast majority of large corporations and defenders of capitalism don’t espouse a multiple bottom line. Instead, they would likely agree with economist and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, one of the most articulate and influential voices supporting a radically free market. In 1970 he wrote a seminal article in The New York Times Magazine entitled, “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits.” He criticizes the idea that executives of corporations have any responsibility to guide their businesses’ practices so that they might help society. His argument says executives work for shareholders and are playing with shareholders’ money. Friedman sees any use of shareholders’ money that does not maximize profits as essentially a tax and those who believe a business might have more than one bottom line are “preaching pure and unadulterated socialism.” (How it can be socialism when one may freely buy shares of a business and seek to fire executives or divest from the company if one is disappointed, Friedman does not say.)
What we then need is a capitalism where more businesses are encouraged to pursue multiple bottom lines. This means reforming capitalism and reclaiming it from those who see profit as the chief end of businesses. We need to pay attention to success stories of companies like Broetje Orchards or even high-end office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, whose former CEO, Max DePree argued profit is only a means to an end. He writes in Leadership is an Art, “Corporations can and should have a redemptive purpose. We need to weigh the pragmatic in the clarifying light of the moral. We must understand that reaching our potential is more important than reaching our goals.” (69) We must remember humans create markets, they are not naturally-occurring forces like the tide. Our values and beliefs shape markets. We decide what the bottom line is. We must also remember that while our values shape markets, the markets return the favor. If we value monetary profit above all other things, our markets will primarily reward monetary profit and will shape us to only value profit more.
So let us ask, what do we value and how can we shape markets to reward excellence, innovation, and efficiency in areas other than profit?
I am of the opinion that it would be wonderful for a greater embrace of business and free enterprise among justice advocates. The successes of capitalism to bring communities out of poverty should not be diminished. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We should remember aid is meant to address short term needs. The transformation of communities in poverty requires more than one-time assistance. A healthy economic environment is the result of many factors that aid alone cannot achieve—e.g., good governance, sustainable capital, etc. Equally important, I believe it would be wonderful if our business schools and corporations taught more about ethics and morals. We must measure the success of a business by more than the balance sheet. In order to reform capitalism, I believe we need to engage the system. Support and invest in businesses pursuing a multiple bottom line. Let’s change that bathwater.
My friend, Carol Joy Lutz, recently delivered a wonderful sermon, “Wisdom from a Teenager: Lessons from Mary.” She reveres Mary for her faith and courage while avoiding sentimentalizing Mary to the point that she no longer resembles the thoughtful young woman we meet in the Bible. In the sermon Carol suggests what Christmas cards could look like if they truly honored the challenges Mary faced because God blessed her with being the mother of Jesus.
I loved Carol’s more honest and raw Christmas greetings that respect the story of a young, pregnant, unwed virgin, whose son will be betrayed and unjustly executed. I decided to make mock-ups of these cards.
These cards might shock people. I do not intend to make light of or diminish the difficulties and tragedies Mary and other parents who share her experiences have endured. My hope is that the surprising words of these cards will prompt reflection on the costs of Mary’s discipleship. I wanted to play up the incongruities between the staid imagery of Jesus’ mother and Carol’s sobering, earthy descriptions of Mary’s experience.
Mary was truly blessed, but let us remember the Bible defines blessing differently than we do. We often confuse being blessed with having an easy life, which is hardly ever the case for the people in the Bible who receive God’s blessing, especially Mary.
As Carol says, “Life is not all neat and tidy, like a dime store Christmas card. Here are some Christmas card sentiments you’ll never find at Hallmark:”
I’ll give Carol the final word:
Can we be like Mary? Taking time and care to unclench our jaw, to uncross our arms, to be open to what gifts God wants to give us, even if they may be disguised as suffering?
Can we say a prayer of gratitude in the midst of the struggle, knowing that God can redeem the worst pile of mess in our lives?
Is there something that God wants to birth in you that may have a very long gestation, that may even have a long, painful delivery, but that could bring light to this broken world?
In our Advent devotional, Embrace the Coming Light, Eddy Ekmekji and I suggest following a spiritual discipline that coincides with each week’s character and theme. This week’s discipline is generosity, following the story of the wise men. My mother’s fiance, Doug, has been reading the devotional and put that discipline into practice yesterday. As he made his daily morning Starbucks run, after paying for his order, he then decided to buy the order of a police officer behind him in line.
When Doug returned to that same Starbucks this morning, he learned from the barista that his act of generosity set off something truly amazing. The police officer whose coffee he purchased then bought the following customer’s order. That person then bought the next order. This chain of generosity continued for over eighty people and lasted from 7:15am, when Doug paid for the cop’s coffee, until 9:20am.
I find it astounding how God can use one act of grace to offer serendipitous gifts to people as well as to form their characters. For one morning, the Holy Spirit made over eighty people more generous. A busy Starbucks, full of cold, tired people wanting their caffeine fix on their way to work became a thin place, where the boundary between Heaven and Earth was more permeable and the goodness of God was more easily experienced.
We are a passionate people. We care deeply about matters we find important, whether it is wanting to see human trafficking end to wanting to see the Oakland Athletics win the world series (Go A’s!). What we mean when we say we are passionate is that we have strong feelings about a subject. We are not a generally apathetic people in that we are unconcerned or uninformed. Whether our concern translates to action is another issue, however.
We have largely lost an older definition of the word passion and I think it would be wise for us to recover it. Passion used to mean suffering and to be passionate about an issue signified one was willing to suffer for it. Too often we see people who are passionate about an issue in that they care deeply about that issue, but they are not passionate in that they do not suffer for that issue. We need people to clearly articulate their strong opinions. At the same time, these opinions cannot take the place of actual sacrifice. This is not to say I think we should develop martyr complexes. In fact, I hope we can avoid seeking martyrdom for the sake of martyrdom.
I am guilty of this problem. I can read lots of articles about a matter I find important and have lengthy and heated debates about said topic. I can even let my concern about that topic dominate my thoughts throughout the day and keep me up at night.
But it stops there. My life doesn’t really change so I actually do something to make a difference in these issues I say I am so passionate about. I may give money to a cause, but not so much that I have to radically rearrange my budget. If it’s a matter that can be affected politically, I might sign a petition, attend a rally, or let my opinion on the matter shape how I vote. I don’t really adjust how I spend my time because though I may volunteer a bit, it is usually when I have an opening in my schedule. I may even write a blog post about the matter. But I haven’t put even my comfort at risk. Some of the only negative costs may be a few awkward dinner conversations or a few Facebook friends block me because they disagree with my opinions.
We need more people to be passionate in the old sense of the term. We need people to move beyond merely being moved emotionally. We need to be moved toward acting for the common good, even at great cost. It is important to be well-educated about these matters. Action without first trying to consider all the consequences can lead to unintended dangers, such as the case of the American evangelical push for transnational adoption leading to a “boom-and-bust market” for adoptable children in developing nations. But let’s not confuse — as I often can — educating ourselves with effecting change. We cannot stop just at education.
I’m trying to change my language and reserve the word passionate to describe things for which I am willing to sacrifice to the point of suffering. If I say I am passionate about a matter but I can’t point to examples of how I have rearranged my life or the costs I was willing to incur so that I work to bring some improvement to that matter, then I doubt that I am truly passionate about it. I simply have strong opinions on that subject.
What would happen if we considered the issues that evoke strong opinions from us and then asked, “How much have I suffered to effect positive change for this?”
The following is the first essay from my new devotional, On the Glorious Splendor: Devotional Readings on Psalm 145, available both in the Kindle format and paperback at Amazon.com.
Our First and Last Word
Praise is the beginning and end of our prayer life, framing all of our speech directed toward God. When we first meet the powerful creator God of the universe, we naturally respond with awe and worship. We realize we are not God, nature is not divine, and our nations, economies, militaries, material goods, and families are not supernatural. In praise we meet Yahweh, the God of Israel, who is in control, loyally loving all of creation, establishing justice and peace. Coming before Yahweh and exclaiming praise is the intended state for humanity. Therefore in the Book of Psalms we find numerous examples of and calls to worship Yahweh. A right relationship with this God requires exuberant, abundant praise.
This short guide will help you prayerfully read through Psalm 145, a prayer-poem that enthusiastically expresses “glad astonishment” at God’s greatness and goodness. The psalmist marvels at the great power of God seen through works of creation, sustenance, and salvation. The psalmist also proclaims Yahweh’s goodness is evident through God’s graciousness, mercy, patience, and deep commitment to people.
Psalm 145 is a model of praise. The psalmist focuses all the attention on Yahweh, not on himself, or even on what God has done for the psalmist. Though the psalmist mentions God’s works, he does so only in the most general terms. The emphasis lies on what those works reveal about Yahweh’s character. The psalmist shows praise is incomplete until we declare God’s greatness and goodness to others.
The God-focused nature of biblical praise may come as a surprise to Christians in the West since so much of the church music we call, “Praise and Worship,” seems to be more about the singer and his or her psychological wellbeing than about God’s greatness and goodness. The psalms of praise correct our self-absorption, or as the Hebrew Bible scholar Claus Westermann explains: “In praise I am directed entirely toward the one whom I praise, and this means, of necessity, in that moment a looking away from myself.”
The people of Israel and the Church have used the Book of Psalms as their prayer guide and hymnal throughout history. The Psalms have much to teach us about prayer and praise if we simply slow down and allow their poetry to usher us into a world that deals directly with the joys and sorrows of life as well as the God who is immediately available.
Praise, however, is not just an appropriate response to encountering Yahweh’s greatness. It also sets norms and expectations for our relationship with God. The praise psalms describe the world as it should be. In them we see God is gracious and patient and we humans are to respond with worship and obedience. The content of our praise allows us to move to the other forms of prayer found in the Psalms. The claims we make in worship become the basis of our lamentation when we encounter injustice and suffering. God should be in control, life should be characterized by peace and justice. The psalms of lament (e.g., Psalm 88) acknowledge we have moved away from the ordered peace of the praise psalms and they call out to God to again assert control and deliver us. The writers of the lament psalms often hope and promise to return to praise once God rescues them from the calamity. The psalms of thanksgiving (e.g., Psalm 34) are that return to praise, recalling both the trouble the writer experienced, as well as the salvation Yahweh brought about. In their own way, lament and thanksgiving assert a life dedicated to worshiping Yahweh is the best life possible.
As you read and pray, bring your whole life forward. If you are in a season of peace and justice, gladly follow Psalm 145’s worshipful design. Let the psalm usher you into a reality in which God is active and gracious, showing deep loyalty to all of creation. If you face trouble and question where God is, it may be more appropriate to spend time with a psalm of lament, or perhaps you can let the words of Psalm 145 shape your prayers by saying, “God, aren’t you supposed to be great and good, like the descriptions I read in this psalm?” The author of Psalm 145 calls us to meditate on God’s powerful works and what these acts reveal about Yahweh’s abundant goodness. Receive the invitation to drink deeply from these words. Do not rush. Allow the wonder of Yahweh to overwhelm you.
I have just published a new devotional, On the Glorious Splendor: Devotional Readings on Psalm 145. The book helps readers meditate one verse at a time through Psalm 145, a beautiful prayer-poem of worship that praises God for being powerful and generous. The psalmist stands in awe of God’s works of creation as well as Yahweh’s loyal commitment to people. By meditating on the evocative imagery in the psalm, we are encouraged to find new ways to express our wonder.
While praise may at times spontaneously burst forth from our mouths, the people of Israel and the Christian Church have also learned worship is a discipline. It requires practice. Too often we believe the voices around us who tell us God is not real and we have to control our own destinies. Praise brings about a correct orientation in which Yahweh is acknowledged as the God who is in control. By giving our allegiance to this God, all the other gods in our lives — nations, economies, etc. — are put in their right place.
Along with the daily readings and reflections, On the Glorious Splendor also contains brief essays that explore power of praise to create a new world as well as explain the method of devotional reading I propose and how it differs from other important ways of reading the Bible. An appendix at the end of the guide describes some of the textual, cultural, and historical details of the psalm, while maintaining a devotional posture toward the Scripture.
On the Glorious Splendor is available at Amazon.com for $1.99 on the Kindle format, or $5.99 in paperback. A free preview is available on the Amazon product page. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can still purchase and read the guide electronically by downloading the free reader app that works on smart phones, tablets, PC’s, and Macs.
My first self-published devotionals, Delivered from All My Fears: Devotional Readings on Psalm 34 and My Companions are in Darkness: Devotional Readings on Psalm 88 are also available for purchase in Kindle or paperback at Amazon.com. Feel free to also visit and “Like” my author page at Amazon.
Today I was watching the episode, “Sunset,” from Breaking Bad, season 3. In one scene Gale Boetticher and Walter White discuss their mutual love of chemistry with hushed awe and Gale recites the Walt Whitman poem, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”
For those who prefer to read the poem, here it is:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Whitman’s poem is such a beautiful reminder that the world we live in is wondrous and we must do right by that wonder when we study and describe it. Too often our descriptions of the way the universe works—or the way anything else works—sucks the wonder and mystery right out of the very thing we are discussing. In high school I was blessed to take biology from Nathan Whittington, a teacher whose love for the intricacies of life dripped from every lecture. His awe was contagious as he described the exactness of RNA replication. Many of my college professors of chemistry and biology never communicated that awe and would instead spend lectures describing the minutiae of their research. They were teaching how the universe works, how life develops, and yet they seemed to have lost their sense of wonder. When Mr. Whittington spoke about the cell, the whole world became larger and more amazing. When these professors spoke about chemical bonds, the world became thinner, colorless, reduced.
Whitman’s poem reminded me, however, that this tendency to lose our sense of awe is not only found in science lecture halls. We do this all the time in churches. Instead of walking together as a community, hoping to experience the presence of the God of the universe, we reduce God into a set of affirmations and propositions that any individual can easily digest. As one who has worked as a pastor of churches, I have made the mistake of thinking I should explain God in our worship service—such hubris—rather than humbly seek to create space where we as the community could encounter the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In reviewing a Sunday service, I would ask, “Did the sermon and music connect, were they relevant to us?” rather than, “Did we have an experience of the awesome and mysterious God?” I don’t think transcendence can be controlled or manufactured, but I do believe we can work with it, we can participate in it. We must kindle awe in ourselves. We must do right by that wonder. What could be more astounding and mysterious than the God of the universe? If Whitman poetically decimated an astronomy lecturer, the following quotation from Garrison Keillor should light a fire under all of us who call ourselves followers of Christ. It comes from an interview he gave to The Wittenburg Door years ago.
We don’t go to church to hear lectures on ethical behavior, we go to look at the mysteries, and all the substitutes for communion with God are not worth anyone’s time. . . . If you can’t go to church and, for at least a moment, be given transcendence; if you can’t go to church and pass briefly from this life into the next; then I can’t see why anyone should go. Just a brief moment of transcendence causes you to come out of church as a changed person.
This morning I was reminded of one of my favorite sayings from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He describes our need to foster surprise. I would say that surprise is a necessary part of our relationship with God. Our surprise at God’s greatness and goodness leads to praise. Our surprise at evil and suffering allows us to lament. And our surprise at salvation gives rise to thanksgiving. I’ve used this quotation before, but it is so good that it demands repeating from time to time. Heschel said:
I would say about individuals, an individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. I am surprised every morning that I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil, I’m not accommodated. I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere; I’m still surprised. That’s why I’m against it, why I can hope against it. We must learn how to be surprised. Not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.
The psalms of lament similarly show a lack of accommodation to evil and violence. In fact the writers of the laments are utterly surprised by evil because they believe that God is good and that peace and justice are supposed to define this life. Out of their surprise the psalmists complain and protest. The psalms of lament keep us maladjusted and give us words to combat injustice.
For those who want to explore the prayer of lament more, I have written a brief devotional on one of the psalms of lament, entitled, My Companions are in Darkness: Devotional Readings on Psalm 88. It is available both as an eBook in the Kindle format and in paperback.