Random Lenten/Corona Thoughts

“If I only had time, I’d write more.”
“Without distractions, I’d get more done.”
“If only my children didn’t have so many activities, we’d be a closer family.”
“If only my wife/husband were home to help with the children…”

Are you finding, as I am, how weak are most of the excuses we tell ourselves? In addition to this observation, what else are you learning about yourself during these days of enforced isolation? What suspicions about your heart—things that busyness and crowds and schedules masked—are rising to the surface? The Hebrew cry to God is one that we (I) too often overlook or ignore. The words have a poetic, musical tone that can easily divert our attention from its hard message:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.*

 Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase packs an unexpected punch:

Investigate my life, O God,
find out everything about me;
Cross-examine and test me,
get a clear picture of what I’m about;
See for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong—
then guide me on the road to eternal life.

Can Corona Isolation—along with Lenten quiet—lead to deeper understanding, repentance, new life?

Another thought:

I have a friend who, when she recommends a book, I take special notice. When she casually mentioned her chosen Lenten devotional, I had no idea it would become my mainstay during these Corona/Lenten days. See if these words from Walter Brueggemann’s A Way Other Than Our Own resonate with you. (Incidentally, this book was published in 2017 and probably written a year earlier. Truth knows no time restraint.)

(On Isaiah 54:7-9) Ours is a time like the flood, like the exile, when the certitudes abandon us, the old reliabilities have become unsure, and “things fall apart.” …We grow more strident, more fearful, more anxious, more greedy for our own way, more despairing, and, consequently, more brutal… From out of the chaos, however, emerges this other voice rooted in memory…shaping our future not in hostility but in compassion, not in abandonment but in solidarity, not in isolation but in covenant, not in estrangement but in well being.

The Easter claim is not simply about resuscitation but about a new reality in the world that is unrestrained by the force of fear, or violence or privilege.

 There is a way into the future in your life, because God is at work doing strange, wondrous things for you and in spite of you, and your job is to get your mind off your ways of need and control, to give your life to God’s large hidden way in your life.

 And finally, this prayer:

We are constricted by stories of scarcity. Break through these false tales with the surprising truth of abundance. May we bask in your shalom and then perform your story of generosity over and over again.      Amen

*Psalm 139:23-24

Corona Virus and the Christian

The words barrel into us with a paralyzing thud: corona virus, national emergency, airports, schools, churches closed, store shelves empty, hospital beds at a premium. How does a follower of Jesus live well in the midst of the crisis? We have memorized and quoted scripture’s “fear nots,” but in the dark hours of the night or when mesmerized by media, we realized that the words have not walked the journey from head to heart.

We in the Western world are now living the reality that our brothers and sisters around the globe face daily: distress, deprivation, denial. We, like they, are called to live sacrificially so others can heal, prosper, and find peace with God.

Walter Brueggemann* writes about Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus: Jesus says to him: “You’ve got to start over! …You’ve got to become as vulnerable and innocent and dependent as a little child. You’ve got to forego your social position, your achievements, your wealth, your reputation. You’ve got to let go of all the things that make you self-sufficient and that alienate you from the wonder of the gift of God. Start over in vulnerability, in innocence, and in dependence…

During these days when panic threatens, Brueggemann’s words take on special meaning. Perhaps every time we wash our hands—as prescribed!—we acknowledge that before God we are vulnerable and dependent. Truly, our help comes from the Lord and, in that truth, we dwell in peace and reach out to our fearful neighbors.

Eusebius, a bishop and historian of the early church wrote about Christians during the deadly plague: All day long some of them [the Christians] tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them.  Others gathered together from all parts of the city a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all.

May it be true of us.

*A Way Other Than Our Own

Ash Wednesday and Lent

It’s Ash Wednesday and when I come home from church this evening, I’ll have an ashy cross on my forehead.

This morning I sat in a favorite café pondering “Why Ash Wednesday? Why Lent?” I certainly didn’t grow up with Lenten observances. In fact, I suspect that church leadership probably frowned upon such observances as getting a little too chummy with “popish practices.” Proof? My mother (definitely not a leader; definitely influenced by leaders) wouldn’t even buy Christmas cards that pictured Mary and Baby Jesus.

I sort of slid into Advent and Lent. All those Lutherans in Minnesota. Heretical authors like Madeleine L’Engle, John Stott, Fleming Rutledge, Dallas Willard. Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian pastors in Bonn. And—oh yes—the prophets and poets Joel and David.

Had I investigated these observances early on, I could probably have found justification for Advent: an effective custom to dilute pre-Christmas greed. But Lent? Haven’t we been freed from such legalism as fasting? Doesn’t amazing grace pour over us like an all-enveloping white robe? Fish on Lenten Fridays? What about Peter’s sheet-from-heaven vision?

Back to this morning’s café experience. Hard to concentrate with music pouring out of the loudspeaker. Clatter from the kitchen. Conversations at neighboring booths. (Why can’t people remember that we use inside voices in public space?) All this “noise” is merely a picture of the world’s less definable—but often more heart splintering—noise that constantly fights to distract me from the God of my heart, from the “think on these things” of Philippians, the “pay the most careful attention” and “keep your eyes fixed” of Hebrews.

Let’s face it, I need prompts to keep my focus and Ash Wednesday and the Lenten weeks accomplish just that. When tonight’s smudgy ashes begin to fade, I’ll remember them and think more seriously about responding quickly to the Holy Spirit’s convicting nudges. I’ll ponder the meaning and results of repentance. I’ll meditate on the days Jesus and his friends were traveling to Jerusalem, “interrupted” by people like little children, blind beggars, and a little man in a tree so the interruptions in my life pale in comparison.

Tonight the ashes will remind me that no good thing dwells in me, but because Christ faced the fires of the cross, was figuratively turned into ash, and then raised into fulness of life, I too have been made whole.

Easter is coming. But not yet.

Christmas Isn’t Over!

Just because the tree is recycled (or packed away), candles, ribbons and trinkets tucked into an overflowing closet, crèches boxed up, carols replaced by praise songs—Christmas isn’t over. In many faith traditions, most of these accoutrements of the holy season remain in place until Candlemas, February 2nd, the celebration of Jesus’ presentation at the Temple.

Maybe you’re like Ginny who wrote this letter to God: Dear God—Please put another holiday between Christmas and Easter. There is nothing good in there now.* No matter your personal Christmas End date, however, Christmas is cause for remembrance and even celebration throughout the year.

If you’re like me, after all the Christmas packing up, almost every year I find one decoration that was overlooked, although this year that number increased to three! Instead of groaning at the thought of opening a box to tuck them away for eleven months, what if I leave at least one out in full view as a reminder of the miraculous, unbelievable, unexplainable incarnation? God so intent on reestablishing the intended love relationship between him and his obstinate, self-centered, sinful daughters and sons that he suffered the indignity of birth in Bethlehem, the loneliness of life rife with misunderstanding and rejection, and death as a proclaimed criminal.

While we Westerners pride ourselves on rational thought, I fear we’ve neglected the potential of imagination—the importance of pictures and symbols to remind and arouse us for what I call heart thinking. (Others more skilled define it as meditation or contemplation.) Just as pictures in albums (or on our phones!) of children or special pets elicit warm memories and gratitude for their presence in our lives, so that forgotten Christmas angel, bell or candle can be a reminder of God’s goodness. All year.

* Stuart Hample and Eric Marshall,  Children’s Letters to God, Workman Publishing, 1991

What’s Your Christmas Theme?

A friend proudly described her 2019 Christmas motif: “My decorating theme this year is all about nature. Tree ornaments of birds, squirrels, bunnies, pine cones…”

I tried that one year, announcing to the family that blue would be theme: blue lights and ornaments on the tree, blue star on top, blue candles on the Advent wreath. Cacophony ensued, blue disappeared, and out came the multi-colored lights, handmade star, dented balls, and lopsided angels.

Many of those decorations have disappeared through the intervening years due to moves within the continent and across an ocean, but new tokens are in place, gathered from many corners of the globe. The tree isn’t perfect—bought on sale at Lowe’s—it leans slightly to the right. Candles (unlit!) also tend to tilt. And if you look closely, you’ll see a crack in one of the balls. Definitely an un-themed tree.

Or is the theme simply “memories”? I bought the little Austrian girl ornament during a wintry trip to Innsbrück.  A red-headed high school boy in my Bonn Sunday School class gave me the star. You could find a replica house from Lithuania and a streetcar from New Orleans. A fluffy lamb is from Linda who’s now in heaven. From Renée is a miniature nest with three tiny robin’s eggs. And the framed tree is from our grandson who barely squeezed in the OmaOpa inscription.   So many stories. So many memories.

A Christmas tree can be themed or—as in our case—a blend of memories. But if you look closely at our tree, you might see a central focus in the midst of the higgledy-piggledly ornaments. Can you see it between the red candle and blue angel? The Austrian girl is below and to the right. It’s the small gold nativity scene. And several other nativity representations are hidden among the branches. In fact, if you walk around our house, you’ll see this theme in every corner. The tall white porcelain Mary, Joseph, manger, and shepherds from Bonn are on the hutch top shelf. On a shelf below are the miniature figures—complete with camels, sheep and lambs, wise men—made by our friend June. In a favorite and unique nativity scene from Zambia, all figures (including the angel!) have black “skin.” Roughly carved wooden figures from Israel inhabit the stable made by our son so many years ago. (We’re puzzled how a wooden hippo found its way into the stable, but we carefully place him next to sheep each year. One year we even found him on the stable roof Christmas morning.) Across the mantle and in almost every corner, smaller nativity scenes remind us of the true meaning of Christmas.

Our un-themed tree could be a picture of Christmas itself. Some—maybe only a few??—celebrate with family united in political and religious views. Others have bruised tongues from preventative biting during heated discussions.

Some dress in holiday finery while seated at laden tables. Torn jeans and stained tee shirts the mode du jour with a beans-and-hot-dogs menu for others.

Cooing babies and excited toddlers elicit smiles in certain homes, while unmoving parents or grandparents occupy a corner chair in the haze of Alzheimer’s disease.

An impending birth announcement is greeted with whoops of joy, while tears slide down cheeks as recent losses cripple the soul.

What is your Christmas 2019 theme? Not the theme on the tree or in the house. The theme in your heart. Can you find joy in the midst of tears?  Refreshing solitude though alone? Hope replacing regret? Joy through tears?

Look away from the tree, from the circumstances, from a groaning world and gaze at the central theme: that stable with Mary, Joseph, and God.

Thoughts on a Snowy Day

Have you been waiting breathlessly for a follow up to my last blog on the subject of “Mine”? You can breathe easier now because I don’t seem to have much more to say on the subject except that God is repeatedly nudging me to the old-yet-always-new truth in Romans 12:1 and 2 as paraphrased by Eugene Peterson in The Message: So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life–your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life–and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so self-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

Note the underlined the words. How easily I drift toward the culture that says “MINE” is the norm instead of staying on the path that leads to “well-formed maturity.” Yes, even at this stage of life when maturity has supposedly(!) been reached. God is never finished with his formation project and I can choose whether or not to follow the plan.

The picture above is taken through my dining room window after last night’s snowfall.  If you look closely you might see the screen’s grid which somewhat distorts the snowy view and the candles’ reflection.  But the candles in front are seen clearly. When I look at my culture’s expectations, I need to remember that the view is distorted. I need to keep my eyes on the light–on the Light–so God can bring out the best in me, continually developing well-formed maturity.


FightCan you see and hear the frustration, anger, tears, screams as young children tussle over the same toy? Adult conversation momentarily halts as the battle increases until a caregiver wades into the fray to prevent the battle from turning into all out war.

Recently I became aware of an inner tussle with the word MINE front and center. It started—or was fed by—an insurance company’s television commercial of a woman’s “she shed” burning. It’s a comedic ad that’s gone viral but for me was a reminder of a (somewhat) humorous remark I made to my husband as we prepared to return to the U.S. after twenty-plus years of living outside our “birth borders.” During the most recent years, the ministry office was in our home and while it was convenient to figuratively roll out of bed to the desk, more than a few inconveniences existed. During work hours, our “home” was an open book.

So when we mused about the kind of house we wanted/needed in the U.S., along with built-in closets (only wardrobes in Germany), a fireplace (if possible), and maybe even an icemaker in the refrigerator, I reached for the sky and laughingly said, “How about a small shed in the backyard where I can sit for writing, reading, thinking? No doorbellShed and a lock on the door would be nice!”

We eventually bought a lovely home (with fireplace, closets and icemaker!) where there was at least space to retreat—but no She Shed. Eventually we downsized to a condo which fit our needs, but retreat space became even more limited. Then age, health, and finances required a second downsize. It is a perfect place for our needs and I rejoice that God supplied the space even when the “odds” seemed to thwart our plans. No She Shed. Not even a spare room. No space that is exclusively MINE.

While a “man cave” has gained not only in interest but is often seen as a necessity for men who need a place to unwind, think, “privatize” after the demands of the workplace, similar space for women has only recently been studied. Hence the popularity of that commercial?

The other morning when that inner tussle threatened to distract me from moments dedicated to prayer, I began examining my demand for MINE. Why this niggling thirst for something, some place, that exclusively belongs to me? A place with a lock and without a doorbell! What else, who else do I insist is MINE? And why?

And with those questions I end this session! I welcome your thoughts on the subject (mj.ehle@comcast.net; MINE in the subject line) and promise to return with your observations and more of my own.