Lent and What Matters

Job 1:21
And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” (ESV)

For some people, Lent, like the rest of what Christianity offers, seems out of touch with reality. For some Christians it seems out of touch with theology. And besides this, aren’t we overcome with our fears of Coronavirus? If that doesn’t get us, maybe it will be cancer, or an accident, or, as some sarcastically suggest, a fatal paralysis brought on by overexposure to cable TV’s coverage of the election. So, what does Lent have to do with anything in 2020? What good is it? Aren’t authentic, modern believers past all such quirky, churchy traditions? Even if some “nominal” believers in that “other denomination” give up chocolate, wine, or Netflix for Lent, why does it matter?

It doesn’t. That’s the point. The first point of this season we call Lent is that little of we think matters really matters at all. You are going to die anyway, so you can stop hiding under your desk. Something will kill you. You are a day closer to it happening. Also, most of the things that you are working to the point of exhaustion to maintain, like your health or your bank account, will be drained down to nothing, certainly well before the end of the century. Whatever you have you will lose. That’s not negative thinking, that’s Lent. It’s a rehearsal or a renewal of the process of learning what you have when you lose everything. It is designed to bring you face-to-face with Christ. Fasting is like Lent in a bottle, available anytime of the year to anyone who is willing. Every need we feel acutely, like hunger, is an illustration of our primary need for Christ. When we let physical hunger remind us that we are spiritually hungry, we move toward wholeness and holiness as human beings.

For the 40 days (not counting the Sundays) from Ash Wednesday to the eve of Easter Sunday, we are called to stop… again… to face the fact that everything in our lives will stop soon enough. Are you really living your life? Let Lent show you the ways you are not. Let Lent show you what doesn’t matter. Let Lent pave the way in your heart and mind for a full, fresh view of the Crucified and Resurrected Christ.

Last of all, Lent is private. It is between you and God. Something needs to be.

Matthew 6:16–18
“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, [18] 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. (ESV)



2 Kings 6:17 – Then Elisha prayed and said, “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (ESV)

My eyes give me limited information about my context. My emotions fill in the blanks. I don’t ask, “What do I see?” I ask, “What does this mean?” Elisha’s servant woke up and saw that they were surrounded by an army. He knew this meant that they were toast. Elisha prayed for him and his eyes, but God changed more than what his eyes could see. God changed what the man thought about it. That’s what God can do for me right now in every area of my life. I need a change in my thinking. I see my life in disarray; it’s a mess of undone to-dos. A hostile army of small piles strikes fear in me. How will I ever get through this? Will I ever catch up? Then I think of my kids and how undone to-dos with them just disappear. If I procrastinate with them long enough I might forfeit my opportunity to have a talk or to play a game or to spend some time with them. There’s time and then there’s parent-time. Kids don’t wait for their parents to catch up. They can’t. They grow and get older and that’s it. It makes me want to burn the piles.

What I resort to instead is escape. I waste time in order to feel better about not having enough time to get things done. Then I feel defeated even before lifting a sword or a finger. I do nothing because I feel bad about doing nothing. This paralysis is my clue. I know I need a new perspective. “Show me Your army surrounding what I fear, Lord. Replace my paralysis with peace and my anxiety with action. Give me courage and faith. I lack both, but I know you give both upon request. Your Word is my Elisha this morning. Thank You for Your generosity and patience. Amen.”

Let’s be the “they.”

What are THEY going to do about it? This is a famous question. Asking it out loud almost forces one’s hands up in the air and one’s head to shake slowly side to side. Asked hard enough and it can be a question loaded with bitterness, blame, and helpless resignation.

The suicide rate of military veterans is now 21 a day. That’s down from 22 a day. It’s a start. Most of my 20+ year career in the military as a chaplain has been overshadowed by this statistic. I’m running the 2019 NYC Marathon for Hope For The Warriors not just to be nice, but because I’ve looked deep into the need for the work of this organization and hundreds like it. You have no idea how much work and money it has taken to get the number of suicides from 22 to 21 a day. Look at it this way: every day one more life is now saved. It’s a start, but just like a marathon is 26.2 miles, we’ve got a long way to run after finishing the first mile. 90.1% of every dollar Hope For The Warriors receives goes directly to programs and support for veterans. The other ten are pretty well split between the administration and fundraising. The NYC Marathon is picky about its charities. This, out of the many excellent military charities out there, is the one I see them standing behind the most. It’s not hard to see why.

Below is from their website… hopeforthewarriors.org

“For the past 12 years, Hope For The Warriors® has been dedicated to serving those who have served. As a Veteran Service Organization, we provide a full-cycle of care to restore self, family, and hope to post-9/11 service members, their families, and families of the fallen.

We believe those touched by military service can succeed at home by restoring their sense of self, family, and hope. Nationally, Hope For The Warriors provides comprehensive support programs for service members, veterans, and military families that are focused on transition, health and wellness, peer engagement, and connections to community resources.

Hope For The Warriors is a family, united by our shared conviction of honor and sacrifice.”

I think the the time has come for all of us to be the “they” in the question, “What are they going to do about it?” Please pray about giving a donation big or small to them as part of my running the NYC Marathon for Hope For The Warriors. Here’s the link…


Thanks for reading this. Pray for these veterans. Somewhere nearby one or more are thinking about ending it all. Pray for light to shine and hope to rise in their hearts right now. Pray for Jesus to heal every wound inside and out. Amen.


Perhaps the Final Best Use Ever of Plastic Straws…

Here it is: early evidence of far-reaching musical genius and a shared indomitable, improvisational spirit. I confess doubts as to whether the same epic masterpiece might have been wrought with today’s paper straws, but I suspect my daughters have more vision and capacity for innovation than I do. This performance was recorded in Ocean Grove, NJ several summers ago. Note the ominous, telltale din of air conditioning in the background, the subtly inserted tribute to “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and the big finish.

A Beacon in Beacon, NY

Tonight we pray at and for our 4th site: Goodwill Beacon. Add your prayers to ours that our community integrates redemptively with the surrounding community. I’m praying for the leaders I’ve put in place and the leaders they’ve put in place. May they lead and be well… as well as… lead well. It’s about people and transformation and the One who creates both: The Lord our God. Every single one of us needs some major changes in life. We’re all desperate to start getting it right at last. We want a life without fake smiles, a life where when we tell people we’re fine, we mean it. What a goal: to be fine! You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you fine!

This latest blogsite, which is old by now, and infrequently visited by any of us, is one of about five that I have that have some measure of writing by me on them. I’ll link them together in this one as soon as I learn how. This occurs to me because our 4th site (really our 5th if you include the Lindsay-Pohlman Chapel in Montgomery, NY) represents integration as well as outreach. We are breaking a piece of ourselves off, but, at the same time, we are getting closer to and uniting under what we sense God is behind and what He is blessing. People are taking risks. People are second guessing themselves now that reality is upon them. The unexpected is expected to happen. There’s a new church in town.

Yeah, I know hardly anyone will notice at first. That’s probably a good thing. I saw the title of an article today that made me wonder: “Why is Christ more popular than the Church?” Another possible title for this article: “Slowest News Day Ever.” Best line from this article…

G. K. Chesterton: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.”

May Goodwill Beacon be a place of love that turns enemies into neighbors and neighbors into friends and friends into a church that makes a difference by not being about itself, but about Jesus. Amen.


A Nose for the Holy (or the Holly)

Glorious songs, sights, and sounds of end-of-the-year holidays, especially Christmas, are knit into our shared emotions and memories. But the smells of the season seem to be even more so!

Here’s my short, incomplete list of these smells…

Pine Tree Candle – Sometimes you first catch a whiff of this in stores newly decorated for Christmas. There’s probably a dozen varieties of Yankee Candles that exist as tribute to different aspects of this fragrance. Actual pines in the forest are the most breathtaking. There is nothing like the smell of pine. It takes over. Countless families risk the danger of a “real” Christmas tree for only this reason: the piney scent. The stuff in the spray can doesn’t come close, but it’s better than nothing.

Fresh from the Oven Chocolate Chip Cookies – The kitchen is really the iron-fisted queen of Christmas and Holiday smells. I don’t know the science behind the smell of molten chocolate, but I know the power of it. It enters the mind like an unforced hug, like a dark chocolatey Trojan horse. You welcome it unthinkingly, and then it rips the volitional steering wheel from your hands. There is no other power on earth that is able to “amend” diet commitments like the smell of “fresh from the oven Chocolate Chip Cookies.” It exterminates willpower. Gone. “Yes, I’ll have another.”

Fresh from the Oven Cinnamon, Apple Baked Things – This is among the strongest of the season’s kitchen aromas because it connects to the psychology of our holiday expectations. If something like the smell of fresh, hot apple pie is lighting up the air, it bespeaks of a distant hope. Maybe your weird uncle won’t be so weird this year. Maybe the family dinner conversation won’t take its annual dip into the abyss of awkwardness. Maybe another topic of conversation will finally overtake the subject of flatulence at the kids table… maybe literature or current events… maybe…

Gingerbread in the House  – The best way to catch a whiff of gingerbread is to eat it. The taste of ginger has a way of recruiting the sense of smell. All this fun leads you to say to yourself,  “Well, now that I’ve eaten the stale-gummy festooned chimney off of a gingerbread house that was sitting out in the open collecting dust for weeks, I declare my holiday food options expanded! A new world has opened to me.”

Eggnog with Nutmeg – This is the season’s olfactory equivalent of the Stop Sign or the Red Light. If you are about to glug down a second glass of Eggnog, you have reached the border. There is no going back. Somebody should have built a wall, but they did not. You will now find your post-eggnog options quite limited. Capacity for intake dramatically decreases as girth dramatically increases. Belt have more than one hole for a reason. Elastic is like the grace of God sometimes. “No, I’ve had enough. Thanks. I’m good.”

Newly Cracked-Open Hardcover Books – Lots of types of gifts seem to come and go, but the gift of a new book, maybe especially a new hardcover book, is timeless. When you first crack open a new book, there is that freshly printed scent. Some book lovers unashamedly press their noses right into the spine and inhale. Great, great smell. And if the book is an especially good one, it seems to smell even fresher and more valuable.

A Bleak Cold Day’s Bright Warm Fireplace – A lit fireplace is something that changes everything about a room. It offers a symphony of sounds, sights, and smells. It’s something that can be enjoyed alone, but is best enjoyed with others. You need someone to turn to and say, “What a great fire! Just what I needed on such a cold day… in such a cold world.”

Ancient, Churchy Incense – Few Protestant churches get this one. And some Catholic and Orthodox churches struggle as well, but those that do get it offer a palette of holiday aromas that truly transport worshippers. In Exodus 29:18b is says, “It is a burnt offering to the LORD. It is a pleasing aroma, a food offering to the LORD.” This looks like the first of many times something like this is mentioned in the Bible. Apparently, our Creator designed something in us that He has in Himself: the ability to be pleased by aromas that have sacred meaning, many of which are associated with food. In churches, the sacredness should be obvious, linked to sacrifice, which for us as Christians is linked to the Cross, so a form of this can flourish in our private homes too. There are 58 days left till Christmas, and then it is gone again. And then another year is as well. In a world that has always been filled with the kind of hate dominating the news lately, the “holy days” are meant to be just that: holy. Holy means “set apart.” Turn off the cable news and disconnect with the Internet. Turn your eyes from all your screens and onto your one and only life. This is it. Take a deep breath and take in the smells of the season, and thank God for it all.  Never forget that the word “Gospel” means “good news.”


“Why?” I have heard the question often. Occasionally I’m asked how I answer this question, especially when losses are horrible, shocking, cruel, evil… everything like what people in Pittsburgh are suffering tonight.

First, the question “why?” can be two things. It can be a standard question: the one seeking an answer. In cases involving loss, however, it can also be a one-word lament in the form of a question, in which case no answer is given or wanted. Any answer would be unintelligible; it would not matter because it could not change what those grieving wish they could change. Just last night all those people were preparing for their service this morning. They were gunned down in hate, the early reports indicate. “Why?”

I stopped writing here not long after my father passed away, undergoing a series of procedures intended to extend his life. No violence or hatred, of course, but still unexpected. “Why?”

Again, this second form of “why?” that life brings us all to the point of voicing may have a question mark at the end of it, but it is more of a statement. It is not about inquiring; it is about exhaling. It accompanies us when we are furious, not when we are curious. There is little point to explaining anything when most of what is present is pain and grief. Our minds do not hunger for information when our hearts ache for relief. This is especially so when we hurl “why?” up to God. It turns into, “why, God?” verses like Psalm 22:1 give us confidence that God wants both our “why?” questions and our “why?” statements. Christ quoted this verse and asked God “why?” from the Cross moments before He died.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?”

God knows we sometimes want answers for the sake of answers. He knows that more often we need Him to know our hearts and their condition, especially when they are broken. “Why?”

This second form of “why?” can have many degrees. A family’s private loss is on one end of the scale while a city’s bitter bewilderment is on the other. Tonight it is Pittsburgh’s turn to exclaim “why?” The rest of us join them…



Ash Wednesday

Genesis 18:27 – Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.

As I ran on the rail trail between Chester and Monroe, a group of students from a local high school, who apparently comprise their track team, ran the other way by me. I looked up to see ashes on some of their foreheads. Smears of black ash seemed like something that most people would want to wash off and forget. It looked embarrassing. It was ugly. Funny how something ugly can be beautiful.

Let me admit that these teenaged boys with their smudged foreheads inspired hope in me as I passed them. Somehow, despite all societal trends, they remain connected to Christian tradition. Christian tradition is the only thing that assures us that there will be any kind of Christian future. It begins with the Bible and tells us who we are as believers. If we cut it off in order to fit into contemporary culture, we cut off our identity.  The Holy Spirit wasn’t invented in the 20th century. Relevancy is a relative concept. Who knew that dark smudges worn all day by some teenagers could say so much? Well, whenever an imperfect tradition intends to be faithful to Scripture and involve Jesus Christ, it lives and promotes life spiritually in all of us.

I pray for all who read this that these days between Ash Wednesday 2018 and Easter Sunday 2018 would be days of repentance, renewal, and rejoicing. It matters. We all need our faith to be restarted and refreshed by the Holy Spirit. He has been filling and tending to Christ’s church from the beginning.

Ashes remind us of the incomparable grace and mercy of God in Christ.


Echoes of The National Prayer Breakfast

2 Chronicles 7:14
…if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (ESV)

  • This Sunday I talked about the honor of being invited to and attending the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC (with Pastors Stewart and Rodriguez) last week as an illustration for my sermon on John 15:18-16:4a. You can listen to this at www.goodwillchurch.org.
  • I still think the line in the sermon that captures the category-busting experience of the National Prayer Breakfast for me is the one that recalls when I was asked, “Do you have your Jesus book?”
  • The “Jesus” book is a small, beautiful, hardcover book that contains the four Gospels and the Book of Acts. That’s all. The “Jesus” book contains no other content, not even a copyright notice. I had to ask to learn that the Bible text is from the J.B. Philips translation (1958). Yes, I now have my “Jesus” book. So did every person in attendance. Many were Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or non-religious, from what I could see. All took their new “Jesus” books with them.
  • No President of the United States has missed or failed to bring his best to the National Prayer Breakfast for each of the 66 years we’ve had it. President Trump was no exception. Every president prior, from Eisenhower to Obama, has his most memorable comments recorded in the booklet we were handed at our tables.
  • Per the published material they put on our plates with our “Jesus” books, the National Prayer Breakfast is centered on “the Spirit of Jesus of Nazareth.”
  • The “fellowship” – the “friends” behind this huge operation that hosts 3,500 invited guests from 140-160 countries at the Hilton in Washington – world and religious leaders from all over the globe – they want us to befriend people and share Jesus with them. I had what felt like divine appointments with many insiders of this group. They were focused on personally encouraging me to learn from them and to be encouraged. “Befriend and share Jesus with the leaders you can reach.” That’s it. Amazing, eh? Very convicting. I spoke with someone else who went this year. We agreed that this may lead us to do things that we would not otherwise choose to do. The real risk is not in being bold for Christ. The real risk comes from not being bold for Him. I am risk-averse, so this means it’s time to ante up for Jesus of Nazareth. The National Prayer Breakfast taught me that I can simply contact a leader I might see as far over me in the government or the military and offer my time, friendship, and prayer. There is no end to the stories of how this approach changes the lives of all involved! (Yikes!)
  • I have to think about the cynicism I brought to the event. I expected a heavy dose of ecumenism. I did not expect what we all got: a potent, unapologetic, authentic, gracious witness to Jesus Christ. “Lord, I believe. Help me with my unbelief.”
  • Seeing Scotty and Tiffany Smiley – who I’ve hosted or enjoyed someone else hosting in our area 3 different times in the last years – and seeing Matthew West – who will be at Goodwill this July… well, this made me think about how small God makes our world. I am just this guy who said “yes” to Him a while ago and He – God – has gone so far overboard in blessing me and connecting me. I will not serve before obscure men, right? Amen! God is crazy like this. He doesn’t know when to stop.
  • If you’re reading this, how can you question that Jesus is seeking to bless you AND use you in His purposes for this world? He is calling you. He will equip you. He is already working behind the curtain. He will not be denied. People all over the world want to hear about Him… and only Him. “If my people… pray.” 
  • We ought to continue to pray for Congressman Steve Scalise and his continued healing from being shot. We ought to pray for his friendship with Congressman Cedric Richmond too. It’s all about our relationships. America is a nation of relationships, beginning with our relationship with God through Jesus of Nazareth. Friendship is the key to life. It is no small thing that Jesus said He no longer calls us servants, but friends.
  • May God richly encourage and bless you this week!

Dear Winter: We get it. Thanks.

Mark 13:18 – Pray that it may not happen in winter.

Maybe it’s part of the aging process, but winter seems colder this year. And darker too. In fact, I wouldn’t mind if the Groundhog was embarrassed and in under six weeks we were all complaining about the heat. “Oh, the heat. I just can’t take it. Turn up the AC.”

The Gospels give us a glimpse into the struggles of the end of time. It’s strange to me that Jesus teaches us to pray that our fleeing to the mountains would not occur during winter. Why would our prayers have any effect on the weather then? They don’t seem to now, do they? And how on earth would they influence the timing of events at the end of time? I know, it’s probably just a manner of expression that Jesus is using here and not something offered to build a doctrine of prayer on. I get it. But I also really get the point that doing anything in the winter is harder, especially running for your life on account of the apocalypse.

It’s touching that Jesus, as He heads to the cross, is worried about the details of our physical experience in life and on earth. You can see His humanity here, as well as His compassion. It’s real. He feels it for mothers with babies and all the rest of us. Remember this as you endure the wind chilling you to the bone as you move from heated homes and buildings to heated cars and back.

It’s always counterintuitive to picture Jesus caring like this. Really? Who are we? He should be angry with us, right? He has every right to be. The cold can remind us of what we deserve due to our sins, but instead, with a little Scripture in front of us, because of what Jesus did for us on the Cross, the cold can also remind us that winter is temporary and will soon be eclipsed by more than the warmth of summer. Someday the warmth of Heaven will overtake us. Someday soon. And only because of Jesus.

Let me just write the word “summer” here a few more times. It looks so good on the page.