Cross of Grace

A community of grace sharing God's love with no strings attached.

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

Filtering by Tag: Lent

Seeking the Sacred – Blessing Each Moment

Matthew 6:31-33

Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

In a nutshell, for me, the practice of blessing each moment, which we’re called to engage this evening – and I hope, for some number of days to come – is just what it sounds like: it’s about finding a way, daily and often, to be mindful for each moment in our lives and to bless them; to consecrate them; to revere them; to honor them; to see each moment as holy, somehow, and useful to the big picture of our lives.

In practice, it could mean taking a breath before beginning a new task. It could mean saying a prayer as a task or chore is completed. It could mean minding the clock and pausing on the hour or at even hours or every three hours at 6 o’clock, 9 o’clock, Noon, 3 p.m., 6 p.m. or 9 p.m., and so on.

Blessing each moment is about being mindfully and spiritually present – not just physically in the room – for whatever we’re up to, whether that’s doing the dishes or doing our homework or doing our job.

For me, then, this practice of blessing each moment is very much about practicing gratitude.

Now, I decided – in thinking and praying and planning for tonight – that I had to come to terms with a new way of understanding gratitude in this context. And I decided, at the risk of making all of this too much like some kind of standardized test, that “gratitude is to thanksgiving as joy is to happiness.”


Please bear with me here. I think this is going to make sense in a minute.

Maybe you’ve considered the difference between joy and happiness before. I think I’ve even preached about it in the past, but I’m not sure when or just exactly why. The notion is that we sometimes confuse or dumb-down the definition of “joy” so that it just means happiness – nothing more or deeper than the simple emotion of something that brings a smile to your face or laughter to your lips. (As in “happy, happy, joy, joy.” Or that old camp song, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart – hey; down in my heart to stay.”) It’s cute and fun and like an ear-worm you can’t get out of your head even after a few decades – so I’m sorry for that. And that simple understanding of joy – as nothing more than happy – is shallow and unsatisfying and incomplete once a fuller understanding is offered up.

I think a fuller, deeper, wiser, more valuable understanding of joy is that it abides even in the face of and in the presence of – in the midst of and in spite of – sadness and struggle and even suffering. In other words, we can be joyful even when we’re not happy, in any given moment. And I believe this because I’ve seen this kind of joy in people of great faith in moments of sadness and struggle – on their death beds, even – when illness or hardship or despair might crush someone with less wisdom or self-awareness or faith.

For example, I have a friend whose family was in the midst of more struggle and bad luck than seemed fair for a season. There was a son struggling with addiction, a daughter hospitalized with cancer, a niece who died by suicide, a brother who died from some crazy combination of addiction, sickness, and mental illness – all three. And in the midst of her very real, justified grief and anxiety, stress and fear, she said to me, “I’m so grateful for my own struggle with addiction and work through recovery and the 12-steps because I’m able to know what I can control in all of this and what I can’t; where I need to step away and where I’m able to help; And I know when I need to leave things up to my higher power so that I can be at peace.”

My friend wasn’t smiling, for sure. She wasn’t happy, by any stretch. And she isn’t naïve, either. But she had a mindful joy about her, in the midst of more struggle than I ever hope to deal with at a clip. She had a peaceful kind of joy within her that was abiding and sustaining and hopeful and life-giving, when so much around her was the opposite of those things.

And this is how I want to consider the Celtic Christian practice of blessing each moment – finding, experiencing, expressing a joyful kind of gratitude – in all things, I mean. And remember, I’m suggesting, for the sake of our purposes here that “gratitude is to thankfulness as joy is to happiness.”

And what I mean is gratitude is not merely… simply… just… “being thankful.” I wonder if we can give to “gratitude” a deeper, fuller, more mindful understanding. I wonder if we can be grateful – like my friend – even when we’re not so thankful for what’s going on in our lives. I wonder if we can be grateful with our hearts, even when our heads tell us we have plenty of reasons not to be. I wonder if we can learn to bless each moment – even when each moment may not lend itself, at first blush, to thanksgiving and happiness.

And it’s what I think Jesus is getting at in this little ditty from Matthew’s Gospel. Instead of worrying about “what we will eat, or what we will drink, or what we will wear;” instead of worrying about our next test or about those lab results or about whatever it is that gives us plenty of really good reason to doubt or stress or despair; instead of letting our troubles and trials win the day, Jesus tells us to strive first for the stuff of the Kingdom; to strive first for the stuff of righteousness – to find joy and gratitude in spite of, or in the midst, of our worries.

In the book, The Soul’s Slow Ripening, that’s inspiring so much of what we’re up to on these Wednesday nights, John Valters Paintner says it this way: “I sometimes complain so much about the rain that I miss the rainbow.” That sounded a little simple and cheesy to me at first, like something you may have seen on a refrigerator magnet or on a poster in a church nursery.

But remember… God’s rainbow stands for hope in the midst of great despair. God’s rainbow is a sign of promise in the face of great reason for doubt. God’s rainbow is a shining light in midst of supreme darkness. So, sometimes we do complain so much about the rain that we miss the rainbow, right?

Which is why I like that we’re calling this a “practice” – this “blessing each moment” – because that’s what it takes for most of us to be good at it, if we’re honest – to make this kind of gratitude a lifestyle; a discipline; a way of life, I mean. We aren’t wired this way, frankly. And the world doesn’t encourage it, either. It’s hard for some of us to pay attention to the rainbow when we’re stuck in traffic or get behind some knucklehead with 11 items in the express lane, let alone find ways to bless the moments of our lives when the real stress and bad news and hard days come.

I know someone else who had a come-to-Jesus moment, once; a reality-check; when a friend of his lost his wife to cancer. They were all too young – my age, and this was three or four years ago: This wife and mother who lost her battle with cancer… There was a nine-year-old son in the mix… an only child.

Anyway, this guy attended the funeral for his friend’s wife, saw all of that grief, and decided on the way home from the funeral service that he needed to be more grateful for his own wife and kids. So, starting the next day – and for each day of the year that followed – he wrote down one thing about his own wife for which he was grateful. He wouldn’t have called it that at the time, but it was a discipline and a faith-practice, I think. It became a daily, year-long exercise of “blessing each moment” – or at least searching each day – some days searching harder than others – for some nugget of gratitude, to put into words… to record… to reflect upon… and ultimately, to share with his wife, as a gift on her birthday the following year. He says it changed the way he understood his relationship with his wife over the course of those 365 days of counting his blessings – of blessing each moment.

And that’s something like what I believe God can do – for us and through us – if we make “blessing each moment” a regular, if not daily, practice in our lives of faith. We will grow to see opportunities for gratitude more often – and in spite of all the reasons we have to complain or despair.

We will grow to count the rainbows around us – God’s everlasting promises of presence and love and covenant – not just in spite of our struggles, but as more powerful and more steadfast than whatever irritates, or worries, or even threatens us, most.

And we’ll grow to be blessings ourselves, in the process – blessings of that abiding kind of peace and joy, that patient kind of love and mercy which surpasses all understanding… which guards our hearts and our minds and our lives, when we let it… and which each of us longs for, it seems to me, and what the world needs, in Jesus Christ, our Lord.


Seeking the Sacred - Learning by Heart

John 15:7-11

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

If you weren’t here last week for Ash Wednesday, you might not be sure about what we’re up to. On Wednesday nights, over the course of the next few weeks, as we make our Lenten journey to the cross, we’re going to engage some of these ancient Celtic Christian practices. So much of popular culture and popular theology and popular practice, when it comes to Lent these days, is about “giving something up,” “taking something away,” “sacrificing” something as a way to focus our attention on the season, to mimic some solidarity with the sacrifice of Christ, whatever. And that’s all well and good and as meaningful as we’re able to make it.

But I hope it can be meaningful, too, to add something to our life of faith and how we practice what we’re up to around here. So I hope these practices we’ll look at will be fun and meaningful practices and disciplines that might inspire some new insights and understandings for us; some new ways for us to bring life and faith together; some new ways to meditate, pray, focus our attention differently, learn something about ourselves and what God might be up to in us and for us and through us these days – and that might last even after Lent ends and we’re living on the other side of the tomb again.

Pastor Aaron and I will do most of the preaching, but we have a guest coming for one of the evenings, too. And we picked our topics from this book – The Soul’s Slow Ripening – which some of you have signed up to read along with us as part of it all. We picked practices that spoke to us, personally, and that we thought we might have something to learn from and share about for the good of the cause.

So it might not surprise you that I picked this ancient Celtic practice of “Learning by Heart.” You know that most Sunday’s I commit the Gospel to memory as part of my preaching. It’s something I started doing way back in the day, during my first year or two of ministry. To be honest, I first started doing it as a kind of party-trick; as a special effect for worship that I’d seen other preachers and pastors do. I thought it would be an interesting challenge and something that would add a bit of interest and drama to the way we hear and receive the Word from one Sunday to the next.

And that’s all it amounted to, in the beginning. It was a challenge for me from one week to the next and something fun and interesting for worship in general.

And, in order to get some of these Gospel readings locked into my very scattered and busy brain, I start on Monday or Tuesday, if I’m lucky. Whenever I get into my car to drive somewhere longer than my commute from home to church, I start to read and re-read – out loud to myself – whatever passage I’m trying to commit to memory. (I imagine people who see me on the road assume I’m talking to myself, or by way of Bluetooth, on the cell phone.) It’s also a really good way to fall asleep at night.

My litmus test for how well I have internalized a passage and learned it by heart is to see if I can recite it, with the radio on. If I can recite a passage out loud, uninterrupted, without losing my train of thought, while simultaneously listening to a song I’d just as soon be singing along to, I feel pretty confident that I’ve learned it “by heart” enough to share with all of you, in worship.

I’ve gotten better at it over the years. And thankfully many of the passages show up again and again every three years, thanks to the lectionary, and they get easier to recall.

But what I learned after making it happen week after week, year after year, is how much more inspired it seemed my preaching became; and how my personal engagement with and learning from Scripture seemed to grow over time. I started to hear the voices in Scripture more dramatically. I started to wonder differently about which words Jesus might have emphasized, or not. I started to reflect on the emotions behind what was said, to whom, and so on.

These Gospel stories and the words of Jesus become a part of my on-going, inner dialogue from day to day so that I have experienced, through this practice of “learning by heart,” what, I believe, the ancient Celts were up to so many generations ago.

In her book, The Soul’s Slow Ripening, the author’s husband talks about how ancient cultures, like those in ancient Israel, didn’t necessarily understand that the brain is the organ that stores memory and learning and wisdom. He says ancient Egyptians were under the impression that the brain wasn’t used for anything more than cooling the blood, so that, while the other organs of dead pharaohs were preserved with a sense of reverence, their brains were scooped out through their noses and thrown away.

All of that is to say, when we hear Jeremiah talk about “writing God’s law on the hearts of the people,” we’re to understand that the heart was believed to be the seat of – not just love and emotion – but of learning, wisdom and understanding. So that “writing God’s word” on your heart wasn’t just an invitation to emotional reverence for or worship of God’s commands, but it was just as likely a practical call to an intellectual commitment to God’s Word, and teaching and commandments for God’s people.

And there is something as practical about that invitation as there is something holy and spiritual about making it happen. There’s something practical and holy about committing God’s word to memory; searing it into your brain; learning it by heart.

A well-known trick for coaches and athletes who run or swim or otherwise compete against a clock, for instance, is to repeat a goal-time over and over in advance of a competition, in order to prepare themselves to achieve that time or to beat that goal. (You might not know that my wife, Christa, was a really good swimmer in high school and her mother would leave index cards around the house with those goal times written on them in the days before her swim meets.)

If you’ve ever loved someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease – or if you’ve ever been with Joyce Ammerman when she’s taken communion to local nursing homes – you know what it is to have frustrating, seemingly empty conversations with these poor, elderly men and women until the time comes to sing a familiar old hymn or recite the Lord’s Prayer. When you wonder if you’ve wasted your time… if they’ve heard or grasped a word you’ve said… if your praying has been in vain… they suddenly come to life and sing or pray those words right along with you. It’s holy, beautiful, surprising thing, every time.

I’ve heard stories of prisoners of war who saved their sanity, salvaged their hope, by practicing their faith in the form of whatever Bible verses and prayers they could remember during their years of torture, confinement and captivity. You never know when “learning by heart” might just save your life, I suppose.

And we heard a great example of this – if not the greatest example of this – just this past Sunday in the Gospel story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The devil tempts Jesus over and over and over again… “Turn this stone into a loaf of bread,” “Bow down and worship me,” “Throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple.” And after each temptation Jesus counters the devil’s test with the words of Scripture that he had written on his heart. “One does not live by bread alone.” “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” “You should not put the Lord your God to the test.”

The practice of learning by heart is as practical as it is holy. And I hope you’ll give it a go this week – and that it might become a fun, regular spiritual practice and discipline for you. On the table before you leave, are a handful of passages from Scripture to choose from. I hope you’ll draw one out before you leave and work on learning it, by heart, over the course of the next week. It will take some time and repetition, but I’m certain everyone here can do this. (I’ve started small. And there is a variety to choose from. I’m not suggesting anyone memorize the Gospel of John, for crying out loud!)

If we want our hearts and our minds and our lives to be filled with the Word and promises of God… let’s fill our hearts and our minds with the Word and promises of God. Let’s invest at least as much time and energy on God’s Word and God’s promises as we do investing our time and energy on less hope-filled, less fruitful pursuits. Let’s let God’s Word and God’s promises take up more prominence, more power more space in our hearts and in our minds than all the other destructive distractions that compete for our energy and attention too much of the time.

Let’s write the Word of God on our hearts in a new way. Let’s abide in God’s Word and let the Word of God abide in and through us so that we might be changed by the joy it brings – for us and through us – when we do.


All Rights Reserved. Background image by Aaron Stamper. © Cross of Grace Lutheran Church.