The Fifth Week in Lent
Sunday | April 3
Matthew 25 Spotlight, Knox Presbyterian Church, Cincinnati
Structural racism is a generational sickness that has kept God’s children from the health and wholeness they deserve. See how a monetary bequest left to Knox Presbyterian Church many years ago revealed the sin of structural racism to the congregation and what they did about it to begin the healing of God’s beloveds.
What are the social ills that have kept many of God’s children from health and wholeness? How has a global pandemic redefined what it means to care for the sick?
And for those who are imprisoned either physically or emotionally, what ministries might God be asking you this Lent to reach out to them?
I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.
— Matthew 25:36
Monday | April 4
Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body. — Proverbs 24:16
Weekly Spiritual Practice: Speaking words of kindness
We’re coming to the end of the Lenten season, and there are still many spiritual practices to explore. As I was thinking about which one to introduce you to this fifth week in Lent, I kept hearing the words to the African American spiritual, “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” in which we are told there is a balm to heal the “sin-sick soul.” A healing balm in Gilead is restorative; but the words of love and hope, redemption and reparations, that we speak, are just as healing.
There is too much hateful rhetoric these days. Words have become weapons. Personally, it has led me to the spiritual practice of limiting the time I spend online and trying to model healthy social media consumption. Now more than ever, we need to be mindful of what we read, what we hear and, most of all, what we speak. We need to practice speaking words of kindness, and that, in fact, can change our lives — and the world.
There was a mother of two young boys in a church I served early in my ministry. One lazy summer day, while we were in the church parking lot watching her boys and some other children whiz by on their skateboards, we overheard a scuffle, complete with some harsh words being said. The mother stepped in and reprimanded her boys. She then gathered the children and asked them to challenge themselves to speak only kind words to one another. They didn’t look like they were sold on that idea, but she pushed further by asking them also to only speak words that were positive and hopeful.
I’m not sure what impact she had on the children, but I know she changed my life that day. I became more aware of how quick I was to sigh or grumble about something. I asked myself, “How would my outlook on a situation change if I refrained from negativity and reframed my responses more positively? What if I sought to spread words of kindness to all I met daily?” I haven’t always succeeded, but I have noticed the spiritual practice of speaking words of kindness does have the power to heal a sin-sick world. A kind word spoken — and received — eases tensions, calms rattled spirits and turns scowls into smiles.
Won’t you join me during this fifth week in Lent as we care for the sick and visit those in prison, sharing with them kind words filled with love and hope? Begin each day seeking to intentionally speak kind words to at least three people. It’s even better if your kind words are to those whom you don’t easily get along with. Post the words from Proverbs 16:24 — “Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” — some place prominently in your home where you will be reminded of their wisdom throughout your day.
God, you sent your Son, Jesus, into this world as the Word made flesh. His ministry was filled with many words: words of love, words of warning, words of reprimand and words of welcome. May we this day be mindful of what we say to one another, speaking words that heal and truths that are grounded in Christ’s love. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
This week, notice how the spiritual practice of speaking kind words affects your outlook on life. Do you feel more hopeful, less overwhelmed, more energized, less depressed?
Tuesday | April 5
Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. — James 5:14
There have been occasions in my ministry when I offered a time of healing prayer. I can’t say it is just the Presbyterians who have found this time in the service a bit uncomfortable, with many choosing to remain in their pews rather than coming forward to be anointed with oil. I worked briefly in both an American Baptist congregation as well as for the Episcopalians, and in both denominations, folks remained seated, too, rather than coming forward for a time of healing prayer. Why are we often reticent to receive healing prayer?
My answer came one night during a Bible study I was leading when a newcomer noticed I was struggling with a sinus infection. He stopped the study and asked to pray for me. No one ever offered that before. I was stunned and hesitant, but I said, “Yes.” He put his hands on my head and began praying. Admittedly, I felt awkward. The longtime Presbyterians gathered were feeling that way too as I noticed them fidgeting in the chairs around me.
But as the time of healing prayer continued, I found myself surrendering to being cared for. I began praying, too. The fidgeting from others ceased, and a holiness fell upon us. We began opening ourselves to the Spirit and to one another. I learned that night that care requires both the healthy and the sick to be present and vulnerable to one another: We must allow ourselves to see and be seen, to touch and be touched, to pray and be prayed for. James reminds us today that when there are any sick among us, we are to call upon the community that God has called together.
Healing God, you are our great physician, and we turn to you for all that ails us. Grant us wholeness. Grant our family and friends the power of your healing touch. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
How comfortable are you to have someone anoint you with oil? When it comes to healing prayer and asking others to pray for you, how does that make you feel? Loved? Vulnerable?
Wednesday | April 6
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. — Psalm 23
Thai Coconut Soup
The slumbering market was waking as vendors set out a colorful array of exotic orchids and equally exotic fruits. Well, they were exotic to my New York City eyes. I suspect that the dazzling colors and smells of the local floral and produce was just another day to the locals. I was in Bangkok on business for the jewelry magazine, and instead of having breakfast at the American hotel I was staying in, I decided to find a meal with a more local flair.
As I contemplated trying the strange, prickly fruit in my hand — which later I learned to be durian, noted for its horrible smell, yet fleshy somewhat sweet, somewhat bitter pulp — I noticed several Buddhist monks walking with empty bowls in their hands. Each vendor they passed would place something in the monks’ bowls. When I shared my morning excursion with the liaison from the Thai jewelry association, she explained that the bowls were “begging bowls.” It was customary, she said, for monks to rely on the generosity of others and beg for their first meal of the day.
Since that bright Bangkok morning, I pause whenever I take a soup bowl from my shelf, remembering the monks’ reliance on others. I hold my empty bowl prayerfully thinking about who it is that I rely on for my sustenance, and how grateful I am that there’s always a full bowl of something for me and my family to enjoy. But not everyone has their bowls filled so easily. There are many whose bowls remain empty.
This week in Lent, as your soup simmers on the stove, take your bowl and hold it. Think about how we are called to be Christ to one another and how we really do rely on one another for our needs to be met. If my bowl is empty, I pray you will fill it. And when my bowl is filled to the brim, I pray that my heart will be generous, and I will fill yours.
Generous God, we prayerfully hold our empty bowls out to you, asking for you to fill them with a love that will lead us to truly serve your children in this world. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
Make Thai Coconut Soup
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons grated fresh ginge
- 1 stalk lemon grass, minced
- 2 teaspoons red curry paste
- 4 cups chicken broth
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon light brown sugar
- 3 (13.5 ounce) cans coconut milk
- 1/2 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced
- 1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- salt to taste
- ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Cook and stir the ginger, lemon grass and curry paste in the heated oil for 1 minute. Slowly pour the chicken broth over the mixture, stirring continually. Stir in the fish sauce and brown sugar; simmer for 15 minutes. Stir in the coconut milk and mushrooms; cook and stir until the mushrooms are soft, about 5 minutes. Add the shrimp; cook until no longer translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the lime juice; season with salt; garnish with cilantro.
Thursday | April 7
So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. — Galatians 6:9
Sick and tired
I never thought I would be overwhelmed by Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 about caring for the sick, but two years of a pandemic that has brought so much heartache and hardship has me overwhelmed — and tired. Where does our caring begin when there are so many needs?
I pause on my Lenten journey to think about how the global pandemic and its mutating variants have stressed an already stretched-thin health care system. I lift a prayer for all the bone-tired and emotionally weary doctors, nurses and chaplains.
I think about so many of my friends who are caregivers to elderly parents, special-needs children and physically challenged adult children. The statistics of how overburdened families are as they take care of loved ones are staggering, and pandemic precautions and concerns have added to the burden. I hear about the growing mental health crisis among children and teens as typical routines have been disrupted by remote learning and mask mandates, and my heart breaks, and I whisper, “Lord, what can I do?”
“Pray fervently,” I hear coming back to me. But as I pray, I realize that I am sick, too: sick of the sickness in the world. I’m not just talking about a virus ravaging the bodies of those I love. I am talking about a virus that has brought to light the sickness of racial injustices and economic inequalities. Covid has hit our Black and Indigenous siblings hard, with rates of infections and death alarmingly high. Covid has shone a light on the lack of medical care available to those in impoverished rural areas. Covid has also revealed how riddled with potholes the digital superhighway really is. How do children stay competitive if they cannot receive online learning? How can a breadwinner continue providing for the family if reliable internet is nonexistent?
I am sick — and tired — of the world we are living in. But even as my heart aches and breaks, even when I want to crawl back underneath the warmth of my covers, I hear the words of Jesus spoken in so many different voices and in so many different situations. They’re saying, “I was sick,” and I pray for the strength to help so that the next words will be, “And you cared for me.”
God, grant us the energy we need to serve you in this world so filled with sickness. When we feel overwhelmed by it all, may we remember it is then we need to step back, breathe and turn our eyes upon you. For it is from you that our help will come. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
What has you overwhelmed the most this day? Identify your stress, your fear or worry. Now take inventory of how your body feels physically. Note any aches, pains or tension. What can you do to take care of your physical and mental health so that you can care for others?
Friday | April 8
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. — Isaiah 61:1
It was an eerie sound hearing the door to the jail cell clank shut. I stood there frozen, feeling as if I couldn’t breathe. I quickly grabbed hold of the metal bars and swung the door back open. Never in my life did I ever think I would experience being in an actual jail cell, but there I was.
A local man in the village I was serving as pastor had invited me to explore the historic courthouse. It hadn’t been operational in years, but I still heard the infamous story told in many variations about the time an inmate broke loose and hid in the neighboring cornfield that was right across from the school where children played during recess. It was shortly after that event that the courthouse was moved out of the village.
No, I never thought I would experience being in an actual cell, but there I was, and I was not prepared for the suffocating helplessness and sense of isolation I felt. While I was there for all of 20 seconds, in that short time, I felt my humanity slipping from me. If I felt that so quickly, how then did the prisoners sentenced for more a 20-second stint feel?
I never felt a call to prison ministry, but I have had friends who have, and I am always awed by their stories of great spiritual awakenings they have witnessed within a locked cell.
While our prison system, like many of our systems, is broken and needs fixing, we must not forget to pray for those incarcerated, they tell me. But how? For when I hear I should pray for someone who has harmed another, I find it difficult. And yet, we are called to do what is difficult. We are called to forgive and to love, for those are the very things that set all prisoners free — those behind actual bars and those in their own cells of victimization.
While I was struggling to write this reflection, as I have never visited anyone in prison, I came across an article published by Baylor University. It caught my eye because it started with the sentence, “Prison ministry teaches us deep spiritual lessons.” Intrigued, I read on. Those lessons, it said, included how to forgive and how to restore. It also cited lessons on listening, patience and cross-cultural communication.
It seems to me if we mastered the skills of listening, patience and communication with all our siblings in Christ — no matter their color, gender or economic standing — perhaps there would be less need for prisons in the country where more people are incarcerated than any other country in the world.
God, you gave us free will to choose between right and wrong, but there are times your children choose to act in a way that harms others and your commands to not kill and not covet are broken. Let us not forget that there are times where we are all found guilty of not loving one another. Send us your forgiveness. Redeem our troubled hearts. Use our hands and feet to work for restorative justice in this world. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
According to the Vera Institute of Justice, a national organization founded in 1961 that partners with local communities and government leaders to work for prison reform, there were 537 people behind bars per 100,000 residents in early 2021. Think about those who are incarcerated and how God might be asking you to “visit” those in prison.
Saturday | April 9
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! — 2 Corinthians 5:17
The prison of yourself
There was a large prison I would drive by on my way to the rural church I was serving in upstate New York. It always gave me a chill when I saw it. It’s cold, fortress-like walls and harsh barbed wire, wrapping and curling on top of the tall fence outside, gave me the feeling of a cold and harsh environment on the inside of the prison as well. I don’t know if that was true because I never went inside, but I met a woman who did.
She was an older pastor, now retired. Her slight frame and gentle demeanor made me size her up again when she told me of how she would spend many weekends at that prison. She noticed my quizzical look and explained that most of her prison ministry took place outside in the parking lot. Not that many people, she explained, ever thought about the needs in a prison parking lot, where family members would line up to wait to visit their loved ones inside.
“I had some of the best conversations and moments of ministry there in that lot,” she said. There were moments of sadness, guilt, regret, hurt, betrayal and even confession. But the greatest moments she remembers were the ones in which those who were nonordained reached out to her, the pastor, and noticed something amiss within her own heart. “There were times I found myself being ministered to,” she said.
It is said that often when we are feeling imprisoned by our own worries, thought distortions, guilt or sadness, we need to step out of ourselves and serve others — and to serve others selflessly, looking for nothing in return. It was in those prison parking lot moments, the pastor got to connect with people who were carrying so much on their shoulders, but she also allowed them to connect with her. She discovered the greatest gift was not in seeking to repair the broken, but simply being among the many pieces of shattered lives and to admit that she had a few shards in the mix as well.
Barbara Brown Taylor, author and Episcopal priest, once wrote that “the hardest spiritual work in the world is to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, help, save or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you allow it.”
As we seek to live into Matthew 25, let us not make Jesus’ “I was” statements a ministry checklist for “doing good.” Let us not see the hungry, the sick and the imprisoned as mission projects, but let us see them as beloveds on the journey with us — beloveds that can, in fact, minister to us and set us free from whatever prisons we have kept ourselves locked in.l, I wonder, how many times I have missed touching the divine, because my clean, soft hand hesitated to touch that which was calloused and dirty?
Gracious and redeeming God, may we see the stranger on our path this day, not as a charity case or a mission project, but as a sibling in Christ who perhaps can teach us something about ourselves, who can perhaps free us from that which imprisons us. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
What are our motives for serving God’s children? Is it coming from a selfless love born out of the love that God has showered upon us? Is it a sense of Christian duty? Holy Week begins tomorrow with Palm/Passion Sunday. Now is a good time to assess your readiness and willingness to live Matthew 25 in all you say and do.