The Fourth Week in Lent
Sunday | March 27
Matthew 25 Spotlight–Bethel Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia
Doylestown Presbyterian Church, Doylestown, Pa.
This week in Lent, discover how two churches in the Philadelphia Presbytery have answered the PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 invitation to focus on racism and poverty, which in turn has increased their congregational vitality. As a result, the two congregations — one predominately Black, the other predominately white — have come together to be open and vulnerable with one another, seeking to learn more about one another and to serve God in the community, together.
In the Bible, nakedness is about spiritual and physical vulnerability. As we enter the fourth week in Lent, think about what “garments” we can clothe the most vulnerable with. Now think about how vulnerable we allow ourselves to be with one another. How easily do we reveal our weaknesses and fears? How often do we admit that we need a mantel of help to be placed over our drooping shoulders?
I was naked and you gave me clothing. — Matthew 25:36
Monday | March 28
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. — Proverbs 3:5,6
Weekly Spiritual Practice: Prayer Walks
Henry David Thoreau once wrote that “an early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.”
A walk can indeed be a blessing. It can even be a powerful spiritual practice, especially in the season of Lent when walking can be a metaphor for “walking with Christ to the cross.”
Prayer walks do not have to be long. Even a 15-minute walk can be spiritually refreshing. The walks can be anywhere: in a city park, around a suburban block or out on a rural unbeaten path. Wherever the prayer walk takes place, leave your earbuds at home so no music will distract you. But do take with you a piece of Scripture to pray over and over as you walk.
While you’re walking, notice how your body falls into a rhythm. Feel the surface beneath your feet — how it grounds and centers you. Look at the sky above you. Notice the colors and the shapes of the clouds. Listen for the sounds around you. What do you hear?
Now look for the glimpses of the Divine. See the tree buds waking up from their slumber. Can you find a crocus peeking out from the ground?
Finally, pray. If you’re walking in your neighborhood, pray for your neighbors. If your walk takes you into a downtown business section, pray for the local businesses. If you are out in nature, pray for God’s Creation to be healed and humans to become better stewards of the gifts found in nature. When you return from your walk, don’t quickly resume your regular schedule. Take a moment to reflect on how the walk made you feel.
God of our many journeys, may we become more aware of how you are with us each step we take in this life. Make those steps secure. Bless the path before us. Help us to walk the valleys with hope and trust in you. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
There are many paths we can walk in this life. As you embark on the spiritual practice of prayer walking, think about the direction God is asking you to go while you seek to live out serving others as if you are serving Jesus himself.
Tuesday | March 29
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. — James 1:17
The beggar’s blanket
Verbascum thapus — or in English “common mullein” — was the name of the flower that lined a part of the trail I ran on. A friend once told me that the tall plant, with large fuzzy leaves and spikey yellow flowers, was an obnoxious weed. But for some reason, I questioned if it really was. For to my eyes, the plant looked too regal to be a weed.
After having had a bad encounter with what I thought was goldenrod, but was wild parsnip — the sap of which, once it touches the skin and is exposed to sunlight, acts like acid — I whipped out my phone to open my plant identifier app. I wasn’t going to tangle with any plant I didn’t know much about again!
I discovered common mullein was far from a weed. It was popular in 18th-century America, having been brought to Virginia from Europe for medicinal purposes, as the petals could be dried and made into a tea to help with bronchial infections. What really struck my fancy, though, was the plant’s nickname: beggar’s blanket.
Folklore states that many times early settlers would plant common mullein along paths and roads for wandering beggars who needed the warmth of a blanket. They would take the large fuzzy leaves and line the inside of their threadbare clothing for an extra layer of protection. The leaves were also wonderful for lining the inside of holed shoes. Hummingbirds were especially fond of using the leaves to line their nests.
I stood there staring at these beggar’s blankets lining each side of the trail and mused at the many ways people have clothed the naked over the years. I imagined a settler planting the common mullein. I imagined a grateful beggar who sighed with relief at the soft cushion cradling his aching feet. But now, to our modern eyes, these plants have become just a weed.
That’s when a question began gnawing at me: What other “God provisions” do I not see right before me that can be used to help others? It’s funny to think that even in our blindness, even when we label that which is good as “weeds,” that nature still seeks to care for us. God still seeks to blanket our nakedness.
God, open our eyes to see the value in the “weeds” we are so quick to disregard as worthless. Help us to realize that your provision, your help and your love are all around us; and as we realize that, may we then take those resources you have blessed us with and share them with others in need. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
What are the often overlooked and underappreciated gifts right before you that can be put to use to help others?
Wednesday | March 30
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. — Isaiah 58:6–8
Hot Dog Soup
The deacons and I were in the kitchen washing the final dishes from the supper that just served more than one hundred people. This supper wasn’t at the church, but at a local nonprofit that was doing an amazing job feeding the hungry in the area. At first, we weren’t familiar with the feeding program. We had originally sought to forge a clothing partnership with the nonprofit, which advertised the need for gently used clothing. When we heard about the dinner the organization served weekly, we offered our help.
So, here we were in the kitchen cleaning up and admittedly feeling overwhelmed by how many were fed. We had no idea such need was right under our noses. As we cleaned, a young woman, who had enjoyed the dinner, came to help. She took a towel to dry the dishes I had washed. We stood side-by-side at the sink making small talk.
I remarked how nice the dinner was. She replied that she didn’t know how tasty beans could be. “It sure beats Hot Dog Soup,” she said. The quizzical look on my face made her chuckle as she began rattling off the recipe. “Sliced hot dogs, macaroni, canned tomatoes, or in my family’s case, ketchup. Oh, and if you’re lucky to have canned corn, throw that into the pot as well,” she said.
An older woman, who had walked in and overheard our conversation, spoke. “I remember that soup. We called it ‘Depression Soup.’ I practically grew up on it,” she said, before lowering her voice as if offering a hushed confession. “I still make it from time to time.”
As the two women shared a knowing look, I suddenly felt like an outsider, not able to fully understand the love/hate relationship with Hot Dog Soup, Depression Soup, or even as it was called during the Great Depression, “Hoover Stew,” named after President Herbert Hoover, whose term was marked by the stock market crash of 1929.
But that night, something inside of me awakened. I went home and looked at my well-stocked cupboards with new eyes. What could I give away? But more importantly, how could I enter the suffering of hungry people in my community? Perhaps a good start would be to taste this Hot Dog Soup. The next day, my husband and I each sat down to a bowl of it. And as the sliced hot dogs floated in the crushed tomato broth, we began to understand the needs of this world a little bit better.
Provider God, many of us cannot understand what living on Hot Dog Soup was like. For many of us, our cupboards are full; and even in our “lean” times, we always seem to have more than enough. In this season of Lent, help us to “taste” what life is like for the vulnerable we are called to feed and clothe. Help us to enter the places where stomachs growl with hunger and bodies shake from the cold. Move us to not only care more, but also move us to act. Show us the way. Guide our feet. Open our hearts. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
Make Hot Dog Soup
- 1 (16 oz) box of elbow macaroni
- 2 (16 oz) cans of stewed tomatoes or whole tomatoes
- 1 (16 oz) package of hot dogs
- 1 (16 oz) can of corn (a can of beans may also be added for protein)
Cook macaroni according to the instructions on the box. While it cooks, slice the hot dogs thinly. Open cans of tomatoes, beans (if using) and corn, but do not drain corn or tomatoes. Beans may be rinsed. Combine the contents of the cans and the hot dog slices in a large pot and bring to a simmer. Break up the tomatoes into small chunks as the mixture heats. Drain the macaroni when it is almost done. Reserve the cooking water to add to the pot, if needed. Add the macaroni to the tomato mixture and continue simmering until all the ingredients are thoroughly heated.
Thursday | March 31
In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” — Luke 3:11
Giving my cloak
I will never forget the day a colleague and I walked up Fifth Avenue to attend the opening of a new gallery featuring an up-and-coming jewelry designer. We were editors for a trade publication, so attending such events were just a typical day for us.
As we walked, I noticed a dog sitting on a blanket with a homeless man whose hand was stretched out holding a cup, waiting for whatever “manna from heaven” would fall into it. I, though, didn’t offer relief nor did I even notice the man. Instead, what came from my mouth was, “Oh, that poor dog.” I am not proud of this moment in my life. And I will never forget how I was called out for my ignorance as the man on the blanket feebly cried out, “What about me?”
In the fourth century, a young soldier, Martin of Tours, came across an old beggar at a city gate who was nearly naked and shivering from the cold. The beggar cried out for money, but Martin had none. Wondering what he could do, Martin took out his sword and cut his ragged cloak in two, wrapping one piece around the old man. He continued on his way, not thinking much about what he had just done. That night, though, Martin had a dream. He saw Jesus wrapped in the same cloak he had given to the beggar. An angel asked Jesus, “Master, why are you wearing that battered old cloak?” Jesus replied, “My friend Martin gave it to me.”
Martin woke up the next morning, committing himself to help those in need. His prayer was simple, as all our prayers should be: “Lord, if your people still have need of my services, I will not avoid the toil. Your will be done.” Martin would later be sainted as St. Martin of Tours.
That day on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue dashed any hopes of me ever becoming a saint —not that I was even in the running for such a lofty title. But that day did change my life, for it was a day that I heard the voice of Jesus feebly admonish me, asking, “What about me?”
It’s a question that continues to haunt me. It’s a question that has made me realize just how easy it is for our hearts to become desensitized to the hurting people in our midst.
God, the news of growing poverty, hunger and homelessness grows more dire each day, with numbers rising and needs increasing. The endless news can numb us and make us indifferent. Keep us alert, O God. Awaken us to the needs in our own community. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
Where have you heard Jesus crying out to you? When have you been called out for not helping? How did that make you feel?
Friday | April 1
The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. — John 11:31–35
The heart on my sleeve
I’ve been told that I “wear my heart on sleeve.” (Thanks, mom, for that insight.) I do show my emotions easily. People know when I am sad and when I am mad. They know when I am out of sorts. They know when I am happy. Over the years, my mother has gently tried to get me to be not so revealing. But I can’t. And while it is scary and even risky at times to put your innermost being on display, I wouldn’t live any other way.
You see, being vulnerable with others paves the way for healing and understanding. Vulnerability can strengthen communities. When we reveal our innermost struggles, the bravados we hide behind fall away. Bravado gives way to authenticity, and authenticity gives way to deeper relationships. Perhaps our churches could use a bit more authenticity — a bit more vulnerability with one another?
Being vulnerable should not be confused with being weak. If anything, it takes strength to show others the real you. Jesus himself modeled vulnerability. He came to us in the most vulnerable way: a baby born in squalor conditions. As he grew, he continued to show us that it’s OK to be vulnerable. He cried openly at the death of his friend, Lazarus. The last act of Jesus’ vulnerability was his death on the cross for us.
I am not one to hide my emotions, and by doing so I have been graced with companions to share my sorrows, doubts and questions with. I never would have found these companions if I had kept a brave face and hid my real self from the world. Speaking of wearing hearts on sleeves, the saying has its origins in jousting. Knights would wear on their armored sleeves the colors or some type of emblem to signify the ladies for whom they were participating in the jousting tournament — the ladies whom their hearts belonged to.
Yes, there is a heart I am wearing on my sleeve. It’s the heart that beats for Jesus, the one who taught me it’s OK to show my tears to the world, for they are tears that fall for this world.
God, may we recognize how many times we show the world a side of ourselves that isn’t truly who we are. May we risk being vulnerable with one another. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
Matthew 25 talks about clothing the naked, but as we have mentioned earlier this week, nakedness in the Bible is often a metaphor for those who are vulnerable. As we begin to think of others who are vulnerable, let us stop and ask ourselves about how vulnerable we are willing to be with others. What about being real with others makes us uncomfortable?
Saturday | April 2
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 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. — Matthew 6:25–33
Consider the lilies
In his book, “Walden,” Henry David Thoreau — who set out to discover what he could learn about himself by going into the woods to live simply — observed how the wealthy defined themselves by the clothes they wore. “It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothing,” Thoreau mused.
Since biblical times, clothing has been a way of classifying people. We are told in Acts, that Lydia was a dealer in purple cloth, which only the rich could afford because the dye was rare and expensive.
I spent my early career reporting on the world of fashion. I was intrigued by the psychology of creating consumer demand and awed by the bright lights of designer runway shows. But it didn’t take long for those lights to dim as I began seeing the less glamorous side of the industry: the competitiveness of designers, the unhealthy body images of models, and the unfair wages of factory workers sewing the garments. When Jesus asks us to clothe the naked, he is asking for the vulnerable to be taken care of, and the vulnerable be found nowhere more readily than in the very industry that clothes people.
In the “2021 Presbyterians Today Advent Devotional,” I mentioned how there were times in my fashion career that I wished for the simple dress of the Amish. A pastor soon wrote to me asking if I was familiar with the “Wool & Prince 100-Day Challenge.” With my curiosity piqued, I went to the retailer’s website. The challenge began in 2012 when the founder of Wool & Prince, Mac Bishop, set out to wear a wool shirt for 100 days without washing it. According to the site, Bishop noticed merino wool was gaining popularity with outdoor enthusiasts, and he wanted to find out firsthand how great merino wool really is. The results were impressive: The shirt made it through the 100 days.
Today, though, Bishop challenges customers to the 100-day shirt wearing challenge not to sell them on the benefits of merino wool, but to awaken them to what I will call “just dressing” — wearing clothes that seek to promote justice in the world. By wearing the same shirt for 100 days, Bishop says customers will recognize what they really need in their wardrobes, save money on dry cleaning and reduce their impact on the planet.
The 100-day challenge will also make you realize that your clothing isn’t what defines you. (Thoreau would agree with that!) And for those who complete the 100-day challenge, the retailer sends a free shirt to them.
We don’t have to go off into the woods to discover if we really want to live like Thoreau did. We can begin changing our lives and helping others by venturing into the depths of our closets and listening to what our wardrobes say about us.
God who dresses the lilies in the field so splendidly, you know what we need to cover our backs. May we see our wardrobes this day as an extension of our faith, purchasing clothes from designers who pay fair wages to factory workers and paring down what we own to reduce clothing waste in landfills. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
Lent is a perfect time for spring cleaning, starting with our closets. Take an afternoon to reorganize your clothes and see what you can give to others.