Lenten letters

To my fellow pilgrims in this season of Lent

Almost seven years ago I attended my first Ash Wednesday service. I listened to Jesus’s searching question to James and John as they sought power and privilege in his coming kingdom: “Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink?” (Matthew 20:22, NLT). I knelt in silence at the altar. I received upon my forehead a dirty cross of oil and ashes. And I rose, ready for the return to daily routine, with new insight into the significance of this season in the Christian year: 

we are not called to be passive observers (or even penitent celebrants) of the Easter story but active participants in the offering of God’s perfect peace on the path of suffering, in the place of death, by the pool of people’s tears.

I was reminded of this as we marked the beginning of our Lenten season in a very special way this year: journeying between nine congregations to pray intentionally with members of Christ’s body for those within our communities who have drunk so long and deep of such a bitter cup that they have lost their sense of hope, of joy, of dignity, and, especially, of their belovedness. 

  • Have we drunk this cup? 
  • How has the bitterness changed us? 
  • Where is Christ in the midst of the suffering? 
  • Do we dare to drink deeply on behalf of another?

These are some of the questions with which we wrestle as we set our sights towards Jerusalem and share in the slow, and often painful, journey towards the cross on Calvary.

This cup, along with the broken bread, is at the centre of our table: a constant reminder that love is hospitable, grace is costly, and togetherness can be painful as we sacrifice our power and privilege to make room for each other. 

This journey is at the heart of our pilgrimage towards the perfect, eternal shalom of God’s kin(g)dom – complete with sore feet and dusty sandals, unrelenting ups and sudden downs, places of rest and refreshing, spectacular views, and surprising companions along the way.

This season in the church year is a starting point for repentance and renewal: inviting us, in Scripture and fellowship and prayer, to acknowledge and turn from attitudes and behaviours that keep us from experiencing and sharing in the love, the mercy, the humility, and the justice of Christ.

I pray that over the next six weeks you will intentionally commit to drinking of this cup of suffering, this cup of glory.

  • Perhaps you’ll take the pledge through UnitingWorld’s (or other) lent event (www.lentevent.com) to give up items you can live without for forty days and donate what you save to life changing projects.
  • Perhaps you’ll volunteer at a shelter or food ministry – or even invite someone who you know is struggling for a meal in your own home.
  • Perhaps you would like to join a local Lenten Bible Study happening in your area.
  • Perhaps you’ll let go of a grudge or a resentment that you’ve been holding on to for far too long.

As we drink deeply, may we be fill to overflowing with the love of Christ – for the world, and for each other.
Yvonne 

Best and worst

*an opening prayer inspired by the story of David and his son, Absalom,
in 2 Samuel 13-18 and Ephesians 5:1-2*

Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that.

Ephesians 5:1-2, The Message

Praise to You O Suffering God.
You know the wounding of skin that was made to love,
the piercing of flesh with nail and thorn,
and the far greater rending of heart and of hope
through deception,
denial,
and desertion.

By humbling yourself in human form,
You have seen us at our best –
and at our worst.

You understand that love can lead to light and life
as easily as it can to death and destruction;
that a word spoken in anger can be an instrument of justice
or a wrecking ball of devastation;
that one day our family is a sanctuary, a source of strength and support,
the next, the people who we have given the most power
to drive us crazy or do us harm.

As we gather, this day, in Your holy presence
– our whole being hoping for Your faithful love
and great redemption –
we pray that You will gather together
both our beauty and our brokenness,
with Your infinite tenderness …

Graham Kendrick “O Lord, Your tenderness”

Job 1:6-22 – a prayer journey with children

The book of Job seldom features in our conversations with children – or adults for that matter – because its subject matter is so difficult to make sense of. Job 1:22 is a verse which makes us question our understanding of God’s goodness and our (carefully-nursed) illusion that the Christian life is a comfortable one.

Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
    naked I’ll return to the womb of the earth.
God gives, God takes.
    God’s name be ever blessed.

The “prayer journey” below does not try to articulate a clever theology around the concepts of blessing or suffering, but rather to respond to the invitation inherent in the story: to express gratitude for our many blessings and to pray for those who, when stripped of life’s blessings, feel unloved and abandoned by God.

***

Preparations:

  1. Cut-outs of some of the “blessings” listed in the story – children, farmland, oxen, donkeys, sheep, servants, a house, laden-camels etc. to be “hidden” in easy-to-find locations or kept in a box.
  2. A large world map that can be unfolded and laid out on the floor.
  3. Symbols of disasters like floods, volcanoes, bombs (for war) etc. that will be placed in relevant locations during the period of intercessory prayer – it is helpful to practice finding or possibly lightly marking the points at which these will be placed on the map.
  4. Tea lights or cut outs of hearts (depending on the age of the children).
  5. A copy of “May God’s love be with you” card for each child – along with colouring pencils, stickers, glitter etc. – download Worksheet.

***

Once upon a time, long long ago, lived a man named Job who loved God with all his heart and tried his best to only do what was good and right.

Now, Job had many things. Some people would call him lucky; some, rich. As Christians, we would probably use the word blessed.

Can you help me find/name some of the blessings that God had given this good man?

<children find the “hidden” blessings or name them as they are drawn out of the box>

<space for wondering is offered at the end of each statement below>
I wonder how Job felt about all of these blessings from God.
I wonder if you feel like God has blessed you.
I wonder if Job ever stopped to say thank you to God for his family and his servants, for his comfortable home, for the good land and all the animals he looked after.
I wonder if we should stop for a moment and say thank you to God for all of our blessings.

<the prayer of gratitude is introduced by singing, playing or saying the song below – can be used as a chorus during pauses as children think of more blessings for which they are grateful >

Count your blessings,
name them one by one.
Count your blessings,
see what God has done.
Count your blessings,
name them one by one
and it will surprise you
what the Lord has done.

God, we thank you for your goodness
and for the many ways in which you have blessed us.
We thank you for ….. <allow children/congregation to name the blessings for which they are grateful>

***

So Job was this good man who loved God with all his heart, but one day Satan came to God looking to make a little trouble. He teased God saying, “Job doesn’t really love you. He just loves all of this stuff that you have given him. I bet you that if you take away everything you’ve given him, he will hate you.”

God replied, “I’ll take that bet, but I won’t take away anything I’ve given him. You can do anything you want with all of his blessings though and then you’ll see that Job still loves me.”

Then the bad news started arriving:  <tear or crumple up each blessing as the news is shared>
Some jealous people stole all of Job’s oxen and donkeys and killed his servants.
Lightning struck the sheep and their shepherds and burnt them to a crisp.
Robbers took all of the camels and murdered the camel drivers.
And then, worst of all, a tornado struck the house where all of Job’s sons and daughters were having a party and all of them died, but the Bible tells us that not once did Job blame God.

I wonder how you would feel if you got news like that!
I wonder if you would still love God and try to do good.
I wonder if you would still think that God loves you.
<remember to leave time for wondering after each statement as it is crucial that children have the opportunity to express their natural reactions and then move directly into the prayer of intercession without evaluating their responses>

***

<place a world map in the centre of the circle>

All over the world, people have been getting bad news. Earthquakes in China and Mexico; floods in Florida and India; a volcano in Indonesia; war in Syria; terrorist attacks in London; famine in Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan have taken away people’s homes, their families, their land, their animals. <symbols representing these disasters are placed in appropriate places on the map – situations should be updated if used after date of publication>

Let’s pray that God’s love will be with them today as their hearts are full of anger or sadness or pain. <children put hearts or candles over each of the affected areas>

I wonder if there are any other people or places that we would like to pray for today. <while an appropriate song is sung, hearts are extended to the broader congregation to place on the map as they feel led>

***

<“may God’s love be with you” sheets are coloured in and decorated and can be taken home to share with anyone who needs a little good news>

Last lessons: Love

*Good Friday: John 18:1-19:42*

And again another passage of Scripture says,
“They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”
19:37

Saving love is costly.

People humiliate us; they try to rob us of our dignity, to strip us bare; they make it their mission to alienate us, destroy us, outstrip us.

Yet love forgives.

Jesus prays for his enemies “for they know not what they do.”

So often we know precisely what we’re doing: we deliberately and knowingly deny, betray, turn away …

… yet through love we are forgiven.

And this love assures us of this: that when we recognize our need for conversion, for transformation; when we acknowledge Christ as Lord and Saviour, we are saved from the power of sin and death in this life and claim the promise of newness, the promise of eternity, the promise of Paradise …

… not as some ethereal vision or distant dream. Even today, Jesus makes life more bearable, more beautiful, by connecting us through the cross to one another in a way that comforts and takes responsibility for our Christian brothers and sisters, our fathers and mothers, our sons and daughters, and indeed, for the whole world.

Yet there are times so dark, so difficult that we wonder how we will survive, endure, let alone thrive on life’s abundance.

In the midst of the darkness, Christ cries out that he has carried out pain; that we are not alone. On the cross, love laments so that we can know that we will never be abandoned, never be forsaken.

In fact, in our fragile humanity, in our needs and our longings, God moves us beyond superficial, surface-level relationships to a spirituality that is drenched in the Living Waters of God’s Spirit.

We praise God today that God’s saving love sees what is started through to the end. In a world of half-done things and best intentions, we are moved by the knowledge that the One who began a good work in us is faithful to complete it.

God is not done with our lives until we find our final resting place in God’s heart; until our spirits rest completely and safely in God’s hands.

Are we ready to offer our lives, our hearts, our love, our all to God’s saving love today?