Monday, February 22, 2021

Ash Wednesday 2021 {A Poem}

Greetings, friends. By the grace of God (and I truly mean that), my family is all well and relatively unscathed by last week’s extreme weather here in Texas. There is no avoiding, however, the collective emotional trauma our state just experienced. Our hearts break with so many who have lost loved ones and property because of the blizzard. True to form, I endeavored to process the tangle of thoughts and emotions in poetry. Perhaps it is just for us here in my neck of the woods, or even for myself, as a memorial stone, but I offer it in hope and prayer that the Lord would use it to meet someone else in their ashes.

The storm was beautiful as well as terrible. If the Lord wills, I will share some photos soon in a separate post.

My current church does not observe Lent or Ash Wednesday, so I should also note that Ash Wednesday is the first day of a 40-day season of repentance in preparation for the joyous celebration of Easter. On Ash Wednesday, ashes are smeared on one’s forehead in the sign of a cross as a reminder of one’s mortality and sin. The ashes are traditionally made from the Palm Sunday palm branches of the previous year.



Winter Storm Uri 

No ashes mark our foreheads this Ash Wednesday.

Palm Sunday’s remnants rest inside their vault.

Pandemic touched our churches, touch restricted.

Emphatic blizzard shut us in. Our light,

Our heat, our water, and our very homes,

In which we hide ourselves for shelter from

The “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”—

All failed, or tottered; some hung by a thread.

The ashen cross smeared not on heads but hearts,

Homes, plans, peace, hopes, and all conceit of strength

Apart from grace, invincibility

Revealed as the mirage it always was.

Illusions of security dissolve

Like smoke from blown-out flame. This storm exposed

In whom, in what, how much we trust, and how

We tack onto our plans, “Lord willing,” as

A talisman against an overwrite,

But really, with a wink, expecting life’s

Predictability to bear us forth.

(Predicability? What’s that?) The twelve

Months past have shown the lie of that belief.

For we are dust; to dust we shall return.

Let this Ash Wednesday and the Lent to come

Well be our truest yet, beginning as

They have with such awful unmasking of

Our pride, our frailty, so much trust in self.

O Lord, we bring our sins, our weakness, and

Our troubles to Your throne. Have mercy, O

Our Savior and Redeemer. Hear our prayer.


2/19/21, first Friday of Lent 

Friday, February 19, 2021

Friday five, devotionals

If you are looking for a new devotional for 2021 and would like my unsolicited advice๐Ÿ˜œ, here are my 5 favorites, ones I return to often through the years.

๐Ÿ“šMorning and Evening, by Charles Spurgeon: This is such a hopeful book. He grounds his words in the promises of God. There are versions with updated language for those who prefer them.

๐Ÿ“šMy Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers: Chambers writes battle-ready words, admonishing and encouraging readers to fight spiritual battles bravely and serve others in the name of the Lord sacrificially.

๐Ÿ“šVoices from the Past, Volumes 1 and 2: These excerpts from Puritan writers provide a carefully curated introduction to their themes and style. It helped me discern which ones are the best fit for me to read their full works right now.

๐Ÿ“šStreams in the Desert, by Mrs. Charles Cowman: As the title hints, this collection of thoughts by various writers is water to a dry and thirsty soul. This devotional formed my theology of suffering before I knew how much I would need it.

๐Ÿ“šNew Morning Mercies, by Paul David Tripp: These wise and fortifying essays are like starting the day with 10 minutes of Biblical counseling. So helpful. Each day's entry includes a Bible passage for further study and reflection.

(As a bonus, the first, second, and fourth of these are available free online.)

#FridayFive #devotionals #newyearnewbooks #unsolicitedreadingadvice

Friday, February 12, 2021

Heralds of Weighty Mercies

However many times I read Genesis, Joseph's story (chapters 37 and 39-50) never ceases to astonish me. It truly is one of those tales that causes the shaking of heads because truth is stranger than fiction.

Joseph, the favorite son of the patriarch Jacob, who was himself the son of Isaac, son of Abraham, to whom God promised a specific region of land, innumerable offspring, and incontrovertible blessing. Because of Jacob's favoritism, ten of Joseph's 11 brothers sell him to traders (human traffickers, really), who sell him to a military leader in Egypt. Joseph prospers through the Lord's presence, until a Rube-Goldberg contraption of improbable plot twists takes Joseph from the prison to the palace.

He becomes, essentially, prime minister of Egypt just as the land is entering 7 years of abundance. Pharaoh has tasked him with managing resources so that the people will be able to survive the ensuing 7 years of famine, which God revealed to Pharaoh in a dream, one which Joseph interpreted.

This famine extends so far that Joseph's family back home in Canaan is threatened. They hear rumors of grain in Egypt, so the same 10 brothers who sold Joseph travel south to try and purchase food.

By this time, Joseph has lived longer in Egypt than he had in Canaan. He recognizes his brothers, but they do not recognize him. He supplies their needs but manipulates circumstances to ensure they return with his younger brother. When the famine forces their return, Joseph reveals himself and makes arrangements for them to bring their whole families and their father to take up residence in Egypt, since Joseph knows the famine is not nearing its end.

He calms his brothers' fears of retribution with these astonishing words:

"And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life" (Genesis 45:5).

Reading that this morning brought back to mind a thought from a podcast I'd listened to earlier in the week. Christopher Ash was speaking with Nancy Guthrie for her Help Me Teach the Bible podcast episode on Job. He said that one problem with Job's friends was that a theology with no place for undeserved suffering has no place for undeserved blessing, or grace.

Joseph's tale is filled with undeserved suffering, but it also overflows with undeserved blessing. We see this in the repeated phrase, "The Lord was with him," offered as an explanation for his prosperity in captivity. But we also see it here, as the 10 brothers discover that their lives and their families have been saved and are being saved through the very outcome of their betrayal of their brother. 

Joseph's blessing beyond his wildest imaginations comes by means of his sufferings and was inseparable from them. And it wasn't blessing for Joseph's sake only but for his most beloved father and baby brother, AND for his 10 other brothers who had behaved as his enemies. And for us who find salvation in Jesus the Christ, descended from one of those same brothers.

Undeserved suffering. Undeserved blessing. The mystery of providence inextricably intertwines them. Though now we see the loose ends, snarls, and variegated tangles of the underside of the embroidery, we will someday see what a beautiful picture the Lord is stitching through our lives. Joseph got his happy ending in this life. Some, perhaps many, of us will have to wait until we see the Lord. In either case, God's promises anchor our hope securely while we wait out the storms. God, who cannot lie, has promised to cause all things to work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).

In the meantime, encouragement from the great cloud of witnesses, whose lives proclaim His worth and faithfulness, helps me through my own plot twists. These words from the Prince of Preachers, for example, turned up in my inbox today. I suspect Joseph knew well the truths Spurgeon describes here:

"When the dark clouds gather, the light is more brightly revealed to us. When night falls and the storm is brewing, the Heavenly Captain is always closest to His crew.

"It is a blessed thing that when we are most downcast, then we are most lifted up by the consolations of the Spirit. One reason is, trials make more room for consolation. Great hearts can only be made by great troubles. The spade of trouble digs the reservoir of comfort deeper and makes more room for consolation. God comes into our heart—He finds it full—He begins to break our comforts and to make it empty; then there is more room for grace. The humbler a man is, the more comfort he will always have, because he will be more fitted to receive it.

"Another reason why we are often happiest in our troubles is this—then we have the closest dealings with God. When the barn is full, man can live without God: When the purse is bursting with gold, we try to do without so much prayer. But when our shelter is removed, then we want our God; when the house is purged of idols, then we are compelled to honor the Lord. "Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!"

"There is no cry so good as that which comes from the bottom of the mountains, no prayer half so hearty as that which comes up from the depths of the soul, through deep trials and afflictions. They bring us to God, and we are happier; for nearness to God is happiness. Come, troubled believer, do not fret over your heavy troubles, for they are the heralds of weighty mercies" (Charles Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, Morning, February 12).

Courage, dear hearts! We are closer to dawn and the end of the storm than we were yesterday.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Friday Five: Written Prayers



 Prayers written by others help me greatly when my own soul feels too dry and barren to find its own or too ebullient and joyful for anything short of poetic expression. The collections of prayers below also stretch, challenge, and deepen my prayer life beyond the default theological drift of my mind (in the way a personal trainer can help even an experienced exerciser). There is an old church proverb, Lex orandi, lex credendi. That means that the law of prayer is the law of belief. It follows, then, that anything that deepens our prayer life will also deepen our trust.


The sine qua non which is not on my top 5 list is Scripture. That is the first, last, and best source of written prayers. There are the Psalms, obviously, but also the prayers of Paul and numerous prayers short and long scattered throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Jonah 2, Habakkuk 3, Isaiah 12, and 1 Chronicles 16 are a few that immediately come to mind. All other written prayers need measuring against the straight edge of the Bible.


Beyond that, here are my 5 favorite collections of written prayers, for your edification.


๐Ÿ“šThe Anglican Book of Common Prayer: my copy is the 1662 edition. If you are purchasing one, I would suggest the 2019 Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) edition. The prayer book is full of short prayers called collects which are memorable and beautiful and which hold much more truth than one might expect from their short length. The biggest negative to this suggestion is its navigational difficulty for those who have not spent some time in an Anglican church which still uses a prayer book instead of printing the relevant text in a weekly bulletin. The most similar option which would be more user-friendly to most Protestants is the free PDF download Praying the Psalms in 30 Days, from the good folks at the Christian Standard Bible and compiled by Trevin Wax. This draws from the Book of Common Prayer in addition to Psalms and other sources. See to read more and download.


๐Ÿ“šA good hymnal: I most often use the Broadman hymnal or Celebration hymnal, but there are really an abundance of choices. Used ones aren’t too hard to find these days. Some hymn lyrics focus on encouraging each other in the Lord, but many are prayer poems set to music. “Be Thou My Vision” and “Come, Thou Fount” are two favorites, but I won’t get to my other choices if I start listing favorite hymns in detail.


๐Ÿ“šValley of Vision: This is a collection of Puritan prayers. It is not written in simple language, but it is beautiful and true and theologically rich. I really like the way the editor formatted the prayers to highlight parallel structure and visually break up long sentences. For me, that makes them more accessible and understandable than prose formatting would have. Banner of Truth has recently added genuine leather and goatskin editions to their catalog if you want a copy to treasure for a lifetime and pass along to future generations.


๐Ÿ“š31 Days of Praise: A wise older woman, tempered and beautified by suffering, gave me this book along with 2 reference books from her library when I entered seminary. This really trained me in praying Scripture back to God and began bending the pessimistic warp of my natural mind toward praise and gratitude. This is a collection to cycle through every month, and it allows blank space at the end of each prayer to note life circumstances connected to the prayer or specific applications of the prayer. The “Your Basic Act of Worship” prayer is worth the cost of this book, and the missionary authors have written about praise in a section following the 31 prayers of praise.


๐Ÿ“šEvery Moment Holy: This recent collection is also  beautifully written and theologically profound. The prayer topics run the gamut of daily and yearly occasions: birthdays, lighting the first fire of the season, the ritual of morning coffee, and beginning or ending a book are among the topics. Volume 2 is due to release this year and will focus on lament prayers. The first volume helps the reader practice the sacrament of the ordinary, consciously embracing the presence of God throughout what might seem meaningless and earthbound daily tasks.


Do you have a favorite collection of written prayers not on this list? If you try or have tried any of these, I’d welcome your thoughts. May the Lord bless these to the enrichment of your walk with Him.

(I am initially posting this without links to the listed books. When time permits, I will try to update it for your convenience.)