We can spend a lifetime struggling to understand how, or even if, our prayers are answered. We beg for the diagnosis not to be cancer. We silently cry for this pregnancy test to be positive. We scream out to God for her not to die today. We groan for the relationship to be restored. We bargain with God to fix it, whatever it may be, one more time. We struggle. Did God hear us? Did God answer us? Why did it turn out this way? Where is God?
We can spend a lifetime struggling with prayer.
A 402 mile bus ride drove my nine-year-old son, Timothy, to his knees. As dusk’s delicate fingers slowly pulled the curtain on Maundy Thursday, my son became sick. He was very sick. Tears welled up in his fearful eyes. Timothy looked frantically at me and pleaded, “Please pray!”
The charter bus swayed and lurched along I-85 South. Timothy rested limply in his seat and I kneeled on the floor. He and I forgot about the other children, their parents, and his teachers. I begged God to take away the headache and the nausea. I begged. The bus swayed and I prayed, “Please help Timothy not be scared, Jesus. Please make your face known to him right now.”
Maundy Thursday darkened. The bus swayed and lurched. Timothy’s nausea and pain intensified. Somewhere along I-85 South in Gaston County, Timothy’s prayer was not answered.
Or was it?
With his eyes closed and his little head resting against the bus’s window, Timothy whispered, “Before I threw up, I was not scared anymore. I just felt safe and that, no matter what happened to me, I would be O.K.”
Good Friday dawned, and health was restored to my son. Timothy and I spent the better part of that holy day reflecting on the sacred moment of prayerful struggle that happened in my son’s life a few hours earlier.
In a swaying bus on a dark Maundy Thursday evening, Timothy struggled with prayer. In his struggle, Timothy grasped what it was that makes prayer so powerful. He did not get what he wanted. The pulsing pain in Timothy’s head did not abate. The nausea would not loosen its grip on him. Timothy vomited, in a bag, on a charter bus filled with peers.
Timothy did not get from God what he asked (nor did Jesus on the first Maundy Thursday, for that matter). Timothy did get precisely what he needed – God’s peaceful presence.
Our model for prayer and the struggle with it is captured perfectly in Jesus’s words in Matthew 6:9-13, and especially in verse 11 – “Give us this day our daily bread.” Our good and gracious God gives us exactly what we need for each minute of the day, even when we are ignorant of our own needs.
What we need is God. We are given God.
Timothy got God’s yes! As the bus swayed and lurched along I-85 South, Timothy felt the powerful presence of the God who is with us. Timothy was not alone. We are never alone, for our God is with us.
The mind-boggling beauty of God’s presence with us is that God’s presence with us is God suffering with us. God does not merely carry us. God holds our hand and groans with our pains as we struggle along this swaying, lurching journey called life.
That is more powerful than a prayerful petition answered simply the way we want it to be.
Kheresa Harmon is married to Steve Harmon and they are the parents of a fourth-grader named Timothy. A graduate of Campbell University Divinity School, Kheresa serves as the Director of Admissions for the School of Divinity at Gardner-Webb University.
Because Charleston is one of the top three destination wedding cities, I find myself officiating a good amount of weddings. If I’m really lucky, I get to engage in premarital coaching with those couples. The conversations include the “major” topics of marriage: sex, finances, communication, conflict, family relationships, and spirituality.
Most of the couples I marry tend to say the same thing: “We are spiritual, but not religious.” I have heard this phrase so much that I sigh when I hear it. When I ask couples what they mean, they usually say something along these lines: “Church people are hypocrites. We don’t think it’s necessary to be involved in church. I find God in nature and through art. I don’t need to go to church to feel connected.”
Admittedly, I have a bias. I’m a minister and I’m also a church member. I grew up in the church. I went to a Baptist high school, Baptist college and Baptist graduate school. My paternal grandfather was a Baptist minister. I have been “saturated” in church (and Baptist) culture. Growing up, I did not have extended family around and so church friends became family. I still attend church with people who kept me in the nursery and taught me Sunday School.
However, I also have also been hurt by the church two significant times, once when I was a young adult and the second as a young professional, which caused me to question my vocational calling and sense of self. I have seen the gross underbelly of God’s people (including me) who have fallen short of their callings. They, and I, have indeed been, and are currently engaging in hypocritical behaviors. I have seen churches harm people and even commit spiritual abuse. I recoil when I see churches endorse fear, hatred, discrimination and isolation.
But, yet. I keep waking up my children and taking them to church, to learn about God’s big love and lavish grace. I keep taking them to Wednesday night suppers, so that they learn that their family includes a church family, a chosen family with whom we break bread. They will learn that these people are not perfect, but that they are human and, if they are brave, these people, their people, live in the truth that they are forgiven and loved.
Last week at our Maundy Thursday service, we took our two boys to the nursery where they usually go during worship times. Our eldest who is 4, uncharacteristically had a hard time separating from us. We decided, spur of the moment, to take him to the service, a very solemn preparation for the most serious two days of the church calendar. He had never been to a service, so we were nervous. He did quite well.
At the end of the service, our pastors served communion via intinction, where the bread is dipped into the juice. I had never thought about this scenario- whether he would receive communion before he was baptized. I found myself walking up to the front with my active 4 year old and he pulled a crumb of bread from the plate the pastor offered. It wasn’t quite enough to “intinct,” so I dipped my bigger piece and put it in his mouth. I gave my son the elements, as a mama and a minister.*
There are many communities of people who love and care for each other well. Our neighborhood is one of them. I recently stumbled upon a post where someone was so sick she could not leave the house to get medicine. She posted humbly on Facebook that she really needed Ginger Ale. Within seconds, someone (whom she did not know) had volunteered to go to the store and deliver what was needed on her porch. Although not explicitly done in the name of Christ, this was a Christ like action.
But what makes the church different? My couples would say that they give and receive in the way my neighbor did and do not need a formal church in which to live out selfless and loving lives. I get that, I really do.
But the richness in the faith tradition for me is that when we participate in the ritual of the Eucharist, we acknowledge that we are indeed hypocrites, but that we are redeemable and are seeking redemption, both through Christ and the relationships he gives us in which to live out that redemption. I want my sons to grow up experiencing the mystery of taking bread and wine with people who are in our circle because of our desire to love and live Christlike lives, and because we are broken and in need of redemption.
So…to those couples, I say: churches are indeed full of hypocrites. There is no denial of brokenness when you walk up an aisle to receive the Sacraments of remembrance, grace and forgiveness. Like Alcoholics Anonymous, church people (on a good day), readily admit they need help.
Thanks be to God for the redeemed hypocrites with whom we share our lives.
*About 5 minutes after we sat down from taking Communion through intinction (bread dipped in a chalice), my son loud-whispered, “Mama, that stuff I drank from the Piston Cup was yucky!” There is nothing like your child reminding you of the everyday-ness of the elements, especially as related to Lighning McQueen.
LeAnn Gardner is a right brained social worker and minister married to a left brained engineer. Together they (sometimes) compose a full brain. She is mother to two boys, ages 3 1/2 and 1 year.
One day, shortly after my second child arrived, a friend and mother of three leaned in close and asked, “So, how are you doing? How is your adjustment from one to two going?”
The uncensored version of my internal response is not suitable for online publication. The censored version was something like, “I DON’T KNOW HOW TO DO THIS! PLEASE TELL ME IT GETS EASIER!”
I think I said something like “It’s definitely interesting,” or, “it’s a whole new world.”
I am forever grateful for a friend who invited me to be honest. Her question and genuine listening ear remedied my overwhelmed loneliness.
Mothering two children has been a wilderness journey for me. My nurturing, loving, guiding energies feel depleted. Have I made the right parenting choices? Did I keep everyone’s medicine and menus straight? Do we have enough clean laundry to make it through the day?
I miss the time I got to spend with my husband during our one-child days. There have been long stretches of time through which every moment of every day is consumed with children, home, ministry, and then children again—caring for everything but myself. It’s been a year of transition—two moves, new jobs, new baby. When will I find my normal again?
In this passage from Isaiah 43, God’s chosen people, living in the wilderness of Babylonian exile, find themselves in an unanticipated season of “open possibility.” Under the crushing weight of exile, many of God’s people accepted displacement as the final reality.
We can understand why, when Cyrus of Persia invited the exiles to return home and rebuild their lives, the people had a hard time seeing the shifting political and social climate as a God-given opportunity. They did not expect God to work in such a way, still grieving the loss of what was.
Second Isaiah invites fellow believers to see God’s faithfulness and abiding love revealing itself, before their very eyes, in unanticipated ways. God had not broken God’s promise, but still claimed, loved, and sustained her children, especially in their wilderness.
God has done what God always seems to do—transformed my wilderness into a season of open possibility. Even when I keep looking for the normal that used to be, God ever and always claims me, loves me, and points me toward the “well-watered pathway.” God helps me trade in perfectionism and control for setting priorities and trusting the process.
God strengthens me to say “no”, to practice self-care, and to intentionally make space for what is most important. God emboldens me to have a soft heart that can love and be loved even when it’s risky. God delivers me from the idea that I have to do it all myself.
God whose love will not let us go, we offer gratitude and praise for your working in our wilderness. Embolden and equip us to be faithful witnesses to the working of your grace, power, and love in our hurting world.
 Samuel Adams, “Isaiah 43:16-21: Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) 125.
A Georgia native and graduate of Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, Hannah Coeserves as Associate Pastor of Children and Families at First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Missouri. Hannah and her husband, David, are parents to Katherine and Annalina. They enjoy playing, eating, and the occasional nap.
O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. Psalm 63:1
Have you ever fainted due to extreme emotion? You know, like you watch on TV? You can always count on my kid’s favorite, the Disney channel, for this plot twist: a new father always crashes at the sight of birth, a dramatic scene where a loved one has just been given horrible news and falls to the ground, a young girl comes face to face with her teen idol and down she goes.
I’ve always thought that this sort of Disney-channel-fainting that is mentioned by the Psalmist was made for the dramatic, but never something that happens in real life.
Until it happened to me.
Being a minister and a mother means no matter how well we prepare for each Sunday, they are always chaotic. One particular Sunday morning for me I was knee deep in Advent activities. I needed to make an appearance at the birthday party for Jesus in the preschool area, my youngest daughter Evelyn was participating in the party, and my oldest daughter Ainsley was helping to lead the choir portion of the pageant.
During the 11 o’clock worship service, three baptisms were scheduled, which I was helping to officiate. And there was a church wide caroling event planned for that evening that I was responsible for leading.
My husband Josh followed our typical morning routine by helping the girls get ready and bringing them to church for the birthday party before going to teach his Sunday school class. I was already at church for the first worship service and to prepare for my day.
During the Sunday school hour I was upstairs with children and teachers in the children’s area, which is where I usually meet my oldest daughter, Ainsley. As soon as Ainsley saw me, she brought me downstairs to her sister’s preschool classroom to ask what foods were okay for her sister to eat. The teachers had brought in new foods that were not typical for the class and Ainsley wanted to be sure her sister would be okay.
Evelyn has life threatening food allergies and no one cares for her the way her sister does. I was able to help Ainsley find two things that Evelyn was allowed to eat and helped Ainsley make Evelyn a plate before rushing to the sanctuary to meet my baptismal candidate. Finally, in the baptismal dressing room with the other candidates preparing for worship, I was able to breathe, relax and know that everyone was take care of for the moment.
My relaxation quickly faded however when Ainsley appeared, out of breath, desperate to find one of her parents. “Mom, where is Dad? Evelyn is having a reaction and we can’t find her backpack!” Her tone sounded pretty panicked. It took me a minute to process what she was saying to me. I didn’t bring her to church so I had no idea where her EpiPen was, which is always kept in her backpack.
Immediately I went running. Wearing my white baptismal robe I rushed downstairs, tore through the sanctuary and into my office, which is on the other side of the building. I must have been a sight for others: a white blur wildly running throughout the church in a desperate attempt to get a life-saving drug for my daughter needed to her as quickly as possible.
In my office I started tossing stuff out of the first-aid kit trying to search for Benedryl. Bandaids, antiseptic cream, tooth brushes, and all assortments of first-aid items were landing on my desk, yet Benadryl was no where to be found!
Then I remembered – there is a back up EpiPen in the preschool director’s office! I raced again out of my office toward the preschool hallway with my white robe still flapping in the wind. “Oh my goodness, what did we do with her backpack? I thought we brought it?!?!” As I ran I hollered at random church members to find Josh now.
Then, I turned the corner toward the preschool hallway and there I ran right into a crowd of people gathered around Evelyn’s classroom door. “Oh no, not a crowd. A crowd is not good! There must be a reason for a crowd. Where’s Josh? Where’s Evelyn?”
Then, the crowd moves and there is Josh standing there in the middle of the group with Evelyn. Our eyes meet and he quickly says calmly to me, “Becky, it’s ok. She is fine.” The stress and fear that I had carried with me from the baptism, to my office, and now to the preschool hallway released so quickly that my entire body could do nothing other than dramatically drop to the floor.
Just like on the Disney Channel.
Except this time I’m the featured attraction. Everyone in the hallway got to see the crazy woman dressed in a white robe involuntarily fall to the floor sobbing at the beautiful sight of her perfectly healthy child who was not going into anaphylaxis.
It was the most beautiful sight and I couldn’t wrap my arms around her quick enough.
The psalmist invites us into the same longing to be with God. The longing that the Psalmist had with God was rooted in love and relationship–a relationship that has been cultivated over years. What is it that makes you want to continue to get closer to God? What is it that causes you to call out to all of those you pass?
After officiating the baptism during worship, I quietly left the service to check on Evelyn and of course, she was fine. And there I found Evelyn’s sister and father both sitting in different areas near her classroom, but far enough away that Evelyn couldn’t see them. But they were close by if she needed anything.
God chooses a life near to us as well. May you search for ways to seek God out, building a relationship so strong that the possibility of a life away from God will cause your flesh to faint in the most dramatic of ways.
Rebecca Caswell-Speight, Minister of Families with Children at Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, GA, has served as a minster in many settings. Recently transplanted from Louisville, KY, she and her husband, Josh, are parents to two vibrant, growing girls.
As a preacher, I often write the sermons I most need to hear. But as a mom, I rarely practice what I preach. My toughest “congregants” are my children, who have the misfortune of having two ordained ministers for parents. I can joke about the stereotypes of PKs (preachers’ kids) and their misbehavior, but I worry that story of the cobbler’s children having no shoes might one day apply to us.
Is it possible that two parents who have devoted their hearts and lives to following Christ may raise children who don’t value religion?
In the evangelical church of my childhood, we held tightly to the King James Version promise of Proverbs 22:6– “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
But we are living in a time where church commitment is shifting. More and more of the college students I serve, even those who profess an active faith, see no need in belonging to a church community or don’t make it a priority to find one.
Others have left the church with scars or have been excluded for their sexual identity or beliefs. As former church employees, my husband and I bear our own bruises and we have left broken churches feeling more broken ourselves.
As we find healing in a different church and tradition, I watch my kids to see how faith is taking root in their lives, how they are growing through worship. How much do they understand about why we go to church? How much do they remember about why we left? Are they even listening?
One of this past Sunday’s lectionary passages was on the prodigal son, and it happened to be a week I was scheduled to teach my son’s Sunday School class. The third through fifth graders had a great time acting out the story, particularly relishing the killing of the fatted calf. They empathized with the older son’s anger at the “unfair” treatment his brother received in being rewarded for his foolish behavior, and shared plenty of personal anecdotes of their own.
Then we shifted to talking about grace. In this story, the father is gracious to his wasteful son, accepting and loving him, mistakes and all. He warmly welcomes him back home even though the son had left his father without a second thought. He shows unconditional love and forgiveness, celebrating his beloved child.
As a parent, I long to offer that grace to my children and to myself. I don’t want to hang on to the frustrations and disappointments of our daily battles. I don’t want to judge them for not being who I expect them to be and miss the goodness of who they truly are.
Instead of measuring out things in terms of what is fair, I want to love them as God loves us, extravagantly and without measure. I want to embrace them fully as they are, while also encouraging the potential I see in them.
I was not in this graceful frame of mind when we returned home from church, however. In my haste to get the kids in bed, I was frustrated and short with them. My son was quick to reprimand me for not showing the grace I had just been teaching.
It was a powerful lesson that he had heard, but even more, he was learning through my actions. Likewise, I learned from him and realized how often he shows me grace in my failures. I see it in his trust that each day is a new beginning.
“God’s mercies are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness.”
Part of this journey of grace for me is trusting the work of God in their lives, seen and unseen. It is having faith in God’s presence that is always with us, wherever we may roam. Grace shows up in forgiving past hurts and starting each day with a new hope. Grace is teaching through our words and actions, but ultimately trusting in the power of God’s truth and love to transform all our lives.
I know that it must begin with me. I pray for God’s grace to transform my anxious heart. I seek God’s grace in my failings and in helping me to forgive myself and others as I have been forgiven. May my children see God’s grace in me.
I pray that one day, when we send them out to make their own choices in the world, that grace will always guide them back home to find God’s love.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Luke 13.34
One of my youngest daughter’s favorite books is Llama Llama Red Pajama. In the book, Baby Llama does his nighttime routine and then his mother goes downstairs. Baby Llama cannot sleep and starts to whine for his Mama. Baby Llama gets more and more frustrated as Mama Llama does not respond.
Eventually, Baby Llama ends up screaming frantically, and Mama Llama comes sprinting up the stairs to see what calamity awaits. When she realizes Baby Llama is “crying wolf,” she immediately fusses at Baby Llama. But by the next page, she is reassuring and calming Baby Llama, helping him fall back asleep.
Every time I read the book with my daughter, I find the transition from panic, to scolding, to loving care too abrupt. No sooner have I harnessed my best scolding voice while reading when the words force me to return to my sugar-coated reading voice.
In real life, I am never that quick to change tone. Once I am annoyed or scolding, I find it difficult to change gears. My “serious voice” is hard to lose too quickly. Though I am a “mama” myself, I am not nearly as gracious about turning my anger or frustration so quickly to loving-kindness.
Luckily Jesus is much more like Mama Llama than me. In the same breath, he accuses Jerusalem of killing prophets, and then expresses his deep desire to gather Jerusalem’s people together under his wings like a mother hen.
Every time I read this verse of scripture, I can hear the heartache of Jesus. To be able to see the sinfulness of one’s child, and yet still long for reconciliation is unique to those whom we love unconditionally.
In Jesus’ aching words we hear the voice of every mom who has watched her teenage daughter rebel against her. In Jesus’ aching words we hear the voice of every father who has watching his son fall back into the grasp of addiction one more time. In Jesus’ aching words we hear the voices of every parent who wants to protectively care for their toddlers, but also knows that their toddlers have to learn independence and self-sufficiency, and that they will never achieve that if their parent keeps coddling them.
I remember when our first child entered the years of establishing her independence. Being a first-time parent, I had become accustomed to having a pliable baby that basically did what I wanted because she had no control over her body. Little did I realize what was coming.
When our daughter first started trying to do things on her own, she did not like help. Instead of stepping back and letting her try though, I tried to physically out-maneuver her. It is amazing how strong those little arms and legs can be. I remember feeling exhausted night after night trying to force her to do things the way I knew was easiest. I eventually learned to let go and let her learn how to do things through trial and error.
But oh, how I longed to gather her under my wings and just take care of her.
What I love about this text from Luke is although Jesus longs to gather Jerusalem under his wings like a mother hen, he does not. Although he laments the ways in which it would just be easier for everyone if Jerusalem just allowed Jesus to lovingly mother her, Jesus does not force Jerusalem. Unlike my physical wrestling matches with my firstborn, Jesus knows better than to try to out-wrestle Jerusalem.
He lets her sin. He lets her kill the prophets and stone the messengers. He even lets her kill him.
Because although a loving mother longs to safely protect and gather her little ones, the wise mother lets her little ones learn from their mistakes and actively choose to return to the mother. That is all any parent can do – set her children free in the hopes that they will return full of deeper appreciation of the unconditional love they already have. It does not mean that the parent – or God, for that matter – still doesn’t long to gather her children under her wings.
But the marker of true, steadfast love is the letting go. I am grateful for a Savior that longs to be in relationship with me, but allows me to come to him on my own terms. May my own loving kindness to others be equally free of restriction. Amen.
When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it,2 take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket.
Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name3 and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.”
4 The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God. 5 Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. 6 But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. 7 Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. 8 So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders.
9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey;10 and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.”
Place the basket before the Lord your God and bow down before him.11 Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household. – Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Giving of the first fruits: But what if my first fruits seem unworthy?
I recently went on our annual Youth Beach Retreat. We provided lots of snacks during the weekend, including fresh fruit. (Providing the fruit makes me feel a little better about the tremendous amount of junk food available.) We always bring the left-over snacks back to the church and leave them in the youth room so the youth can snack on what is left. This year we had fruit left–surprise! So I laid the fruit on the counter and very little of it got eaten.
One day my daughter asked for an orange. (We practically live at church, so she makes herself at home, snacks and all.) I grabbed an orange and started peeling. It was soft and mushy and not acceptable to my 3 year-old daughter. The look on her face made was priceless.
This look made me think about firstfruits. Does God look at my first fruits with the same eyes of disgust as my 3 year-old daughter in response to an unacceptable orange?
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 talks about giving our firstfruits to God. This passage speaks specifically about land and inheritances. The idea was the firstfruits of the land were to be given to God as an offering and thanksgiving for all that God had done. The giving of the firstfruits was an act of worship.
As I read this I couldn’t help but think, but what if my firstfruits look unacceptable? What if they seem unworthy of an offering?
Firstfruits During Difficult Harvest Seasons
This thought came to mind as I reflected on many difficult times in my life. In these times the harvest did not seem plentiful and the fruits of my faith were not ripe or beautiful. Does God still want our firstfruits, even when they seem unworthy?
Maybe many of you have experienced these difficult seasons. Some of the hardest days for me during these seasons have been Sundays, our day of worship. I am a minister on staff at a church, so participating in Sunday morning Bible study and worship are requirements for me.
Every Sunday morning, my husband, daughter, and I arrive at church around 8am. We prepare for the morning mentally, spiritually and physically before others begin to arrive. We greet everyone and make our rounds around the Sunday school classes. We participate in Sunday school, rush off to choir practice, and then lead and participate in the worship service.
This Sunday morning ritual is usually a joy for me -people, study, and worship all in one morning – sign me up! However, I have to admit not too long ago this ritual became a burden.
I wanted to sleep in on Sunday mornings. I hated getting dressed-up in my “Sunday best.” I dreaded seeing or greeting people with a fake smile on my face. I would hide in my office or in the nursery with Scarlet so as to have the least amount of interaction possible.
I went to Sunday school, but cared little about what was to be learned. I sang in the choir, but only because I felt like I had to. I went through the motions of worship.
I was in what some would call a “funk.” This funk was simply due to me being overwhelmed by life. Being a wife, mom, minister, student, and overall nice functioning human being can overwhelming at times.
The difference between me being in a funk and the average church member is, the average church member can play hooky on Sunday mornings. I cannot.
So in my spiritual, mental and emotional funk, I entered a holy space and time each week with a not-so-holy attitude. While I wanted to resent having to participate in the Sunday morning ritual, I realized I was there and that had to mean something, right?
When people would ask me how I was, I would respond with “I am here.” While in my A-type, perfectionist, over-achieving mind that was not enough, I think in God’s mind it was. Being present was better than nothing.
In this season of life, my firstfruits were not pretty, not ripe, and maybe not life giving, but they were offered. Each Sunday, I pulled myself out of my funk and offered myself to God. Many times during this season, I bowed at the altar to pray. Sometimes there were no words, I had none to give; however, I offered my tired, worn-out, and over-worked body, mind, and soul on the red carpet steps of a holy place to a Holy God.
My first fruits felt rotten and unworthy, but my heart for God was neither. So I continued to offer these firstfruits, no matter how humble. Why? Because I had not lost sight of all that God had done in my life. I had not lost sight of God’s provision, power, and love.
“He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26:9-10a)
Despite my seemingly unworthy fruits, God continued to do great things with my humble sacrifice. During this season, God continued to bring beautiful spiritual growth to the youth in my youth group. God did mighty works through me, even when I thought I could do nothing. God showed me grace and joy through my husband and daughter. God’s provision prevailed over my unworthy fruits.
God has given me this life, a life flowing with milk and honey (even when I don’t see it), so I bring God the firstfruits, whatever they may be.
Maybe your firstfruits are just making it to church with your children, without make-up on and the children in clean clothes.
Maybe your firstfruits are silence in the presence of God when you cannot even pray for yourself.
Maybe your firstfruits are a smile when you have been crying for days.
Maybe your firstfruits are reading a quick devotion while hiding in the bathroom (for moms of young children, you can picture this).
Maybe your firstfruits are simply getting out of bed in the morning.
Nowhere in this passage does it say we have to offer award-winning fruits. This passage merely asks us to offer some of our firstfruits. We are to give ourselves to God as an act of thanksgiving and worship, whatever that means for us. Sometimes our first or best doesn’t look pretty or isn’t what we think of when we think of a worthy offering, the challenge is to give anyway.
Stop Comparing Firstfruits
Also, in reflecting on my firstfruits I was condemned by how often I compare my firstfruits with the firstfruits of others. We have to stop comparing our firstfruits. Your firstfruit may be different depending on your life and season. God doesn’t want us comparing fruits, but to humbly offer what we have. Remember the widow’s mite?
I learned this lesson when I became the mother of a newborn. My firstfruits changed for a season. My fruits were different from the fruits of some of my friends with grown children (who did not have to depend on their parents for every need) and even different from the firstfruits of my past. I had to learn not to compare my life, offering, or fruitfruits to others. (I am still learning this lesson.)
Pinterest (and other social media) does the devil’s work when it comes to firstfruit comparison. I remember spending hours searching for Pinterest ideas for the perfect VBS decorations, youth devotions, or best birthday party ideas, only to have my attempts pale in comparison to the beautiful staged pictures online.
STOP IT! Stop comparing what you have and what you have to give to that of others. God doesn’t see in 2×2 inch boxes with beautifully staged pictures that God can scroll through. God sees the whole picture of your life; every season, every yield, every offering, individually. He has called you to your own crop. Each of us has different land, a different crop, and different yields. He knows your firstfruits before they even start to cultivate and grow. If you are giving YOUR firstfruits, God is pleased.
We have to stop comparing our fruitfruits and simply focus on offering them as acts of thanksgiving and worship. Our firstfruits are not about us; they are about God. Your firstfruits are beautiful in the eyes of God whether they are rotten or prize-winning.
During this season of Lent, reflect on your life. Find the flowing milk and honey. Remember what God has done for you and know God will continue to provide. Think about your firstfruits. In thanksgiving and worship, give them to God. If you are in a season where your fruits seem unworthy, give them anyway. If you are in a season of plentiful harvest, give abundantly.
Then you, your family, your church family, your neighbors, strangers, and all those around you will REJOICE in all the good things the LORD your God has given. (Sarah’s translation of Deuteronomy 26:11).
To God be the glory – unworthy, unripe, and rotten fruits and all. Amen.
Youth Wednesday Night
Silly Sarah and Scarlet
It’s a small world!
Rev. Sarah Boberg is a child of God, believer in Jesus Christ, wife to Bradley, mother to Scarlet, and tries to be a minister to all (especially to the family and community of First Baptist Church, Red Springs). She is a professed control freak and covets the prayers of all who read this that her dissertation work is completed soon!
From dust you have come, and to dust you will return.
This proclamation names our mortality. But the rhythmic painting of ashes that it accompanies – down and then across, down and then across, down and then across – marks us with the sign of our risen Lord. We are at once named death and life. Marked with an ashen cross we enter the wilderness with Jesus and begin plodding along towards Holy Week. We face death and darkness and our own brokenness as a people who also know that Easter will burst forth.
From dust you have come, and to dust you will return.
Willingly stepping into the wilderness – on purpose – as a part of spiritual practice – could seem counter-intuitive. Those who know the language of Godly Play have heard that no one goes into the wilderness unless she has to. But going into the wilderness, and then living into Easter, is rhythm that is important to practice.
As mothers, and as ministers, and as mothers who minister, we find ourselves in the wilderness more often than we would like. And more often than not we arrive suddenly. We don’t feel led there by the Holy Spirit, as Jesus was. We feel abandoned.
We start our day planning for a bit of mothering and a bit of ministering. Mothering and ministering both require tending to administrivia as well as to profound relationship building and we lay groundwork and balance and stretch and listen and perceive and take action so that we can do all of this tending effectively. And then someone who is angry or afraid or insecure or simply misinformed dumps her mess on our heads and we find ourselves standing in the wilderness soaked and sticky and outraged and alone.
And we are tempted. We are tempted by all sorts of responses that tease at gratification.
Jesus has shown us what to do about temptation in the wilderness. In Luke’s telling, Satan tempts Jesus with three tantalizing suggestions: fill yourself up with your own works; claim authority that is absolute, though Godless; and behave cavalierly. Jesus declines.
In the wilderness, empty and lonely and exhausted, Jesus remains focused on what he knows to be true about God. And he is strengthened for the ministry he is about to undertake.
From dust you have come, and to dust you will return.
Having been named both life and death we step into the wilderness of Lent and practice surviving until Easter. We practice declining the seemingly gratifying temptations we face there. We practice so that when we find ourselves suddenly abandoned in the wilderness on a day that we thought mothering and ministering would be life-giving, we will remember that Jesus is there with us. We practice so that we will remember that we are an Easter people who will not let wilderness overtake us.
We practice so that we can accompany others in the wilderness. Who do you know that is in wilderness? As you lift your eyes to gaze upon the others who are plodding in wilderness, speak to them with a breath tinged with Easter. Tell them what they need to remember in order to survive the fear and loneliness. Make a Lenten practice of naming the spiritual gifts of those who walk beside you. Remind the bearers of burdened hearts and heavy shoulders that they are God’s own.
This week as we step into Lent marked by ashen crosses, let this prayer guide our plodding:
God of the wilderness, fill me with your Spirit. Show me Jesus in this place. Help me to focus on what I know to be true about you. Protect me from despair. Protect my children from my temptations. Strengthen me for the ministry that lies ahead. Put words of encouragement on my tongue. Amen.
Mary Elizabeth Hanchey is a Coordinator for Project Pomegranate, which provides spiritual resources for those impacted by fertility grief. A member at Watts Street Baptist Church, she lives in Durham, NC with her husband and three children. She is a student at Duke Divinity School where she is pursuing an MDiv as a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Scholar.
The truth about love was hidden in the faux grains of laminate flooring as I, wracked with fever, crawled towards the bed my toddler son had just vomited in.
The truth about love lay deep within the folded skin of my mother’s hands as she helped me pack up my ex-husband’s belongings in tan Home Depot boxes.
The truth about love hung heavy in the air of the fellowship hall kitchen, where kind church members prepared a meal for the vast family that had descended onto Abilene for my grandmother’s funeral.
The truth about love glimmered in the setting sun’s last rays of light as I stood on the beach with my new husband.
The truth about love is that it demands context to take real shape. The poets and bards of every age have stretched language and birthed metaphor after metaphor in attempt to give love flesh. But abstractions only serve us temporarily; words just won’t get to the heart of love.
Love, in the end, must indeed have flesh to be love. Or to say it another way, love is only revealed in the midst of other emotion, of other circumstance.
I tell my son every day that I love him, but I LOVE him when I crawl up onto his top bunk to hold him while he throws up into the sick bucket.
I tell my husband that I love him, but I LOVE him when provide a safe place for him to share his hopes and frustrations.
I tell my congregation that I love them, but I LOVE them when I stand with them by gravesides and hospital beds and wedding receptions.
There is no such thing as love out of real-world context. Which is why, I imagine, God eventually showed up in the form of an infant in Bethlehem. God, the first poet, the Singer of the Song of Creation, stretched the bounds of language and metaphor and then crossed the threshold of transcendence.
This is the foundation of our faith, is it not? That love was made flesh? That was why the writer of the Epistles of John could say, with conviction, “God is love.”
I, like many of you, will most likely buy a valentine’s card for my beloved ones in the coming weeks. I may even pen a poem for the handsome man I share my life and bed with.
But the truth about love is that it demands an existence beyond the notes and letters we string together between us. True love rises from within the tangible moments of our shared lives.
In these days and beyond, may all of your loves be true. May your love have heft, have scent, be brilliant as the sun, may it chime like the stars of the heavens.
May your love be made flesh.
Rev Elizabeth Grasham is the Solo Pastor of Heights Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Houston, TX. She is a mother, a minister, a geek, and has very firm opinions in the Star Trek vs Star Wars argument.
I know I love the Church. I think I will love my kids.
My call to the Church has been just as strong … if not stronger … than my call to motherhood. And so I’ve waited. I put off having kids. I know a lot of young people don’t feel the urgency and are waiting to have kids, too. But my waiting has truly been all about the Church.
You see, I already know I love the Church. The people who have been the Church to me have taught me about God, have shown me how to live meaningfully, have affirmed my value, have fought injustice around them, and have lived in true community.
And I love what God thinks of the Church – it’s his bride, the hands and feet of Jesus, the hope of the world. I’ve been hurt enough times by church people to get mad now and again, but I’ve always kept those episodes separate from the greater Church – the true Church – in my mind. And so I am just overwhelmed with passion for the people of God.
I got married pretty young. I was 22. And I’ve always known I’d want a family eventually. But my husband and I set our eyes on seminary and becoming better equipped to serve the world by serving the church. Kids could wait.
My mother knew from the moment she was married she wanted to build a family. She wasted no time getting started. But I waited seven years. Several of those years were spent earning my Master of Divinity.
And then after all that hard work, I couldn’t imagine not giving my complete devotion to a local church for at least a little while. I needed to work as a minister full-time for at least a year, I decided. But then finding that full-time position as a woman in a new town proved difficult initially. So the timeline was pushed back a bit more.
I was loving the church; I was loving my life. But I was nearing 30, knew I’d eventually want more than one child, and there were biological factors to consider.
So I scheduled it. I was plenty busy serving a church at this point, but the timeline had to be considered, and so I believed God would make a way.
I haven’t known many mother-ministers. I figured it would be hard. It didn’t help that – in the midst of me quietly trying to get pregnant – my lead pastor told me not to get pregnant. It was a completely inappropriate comment. I knew he should never have said it. He didn’t have to elaborate for me to know he believed that I couldn’t give my all to the ministry objectives I shared if I had a baby in tow.
And while it made me angry that he would make such a pronouncement, it also voiced the inward fear I’d been harboring for years. Could I be effective in reaching people for Christ, in making disciples of new Christians, in equipping leaders to take Jesus into their workplaces – if I was preoccupied with a little one who was completely dependent on me?
Thankfully, I am now serving in a church where the lead pastor believes I can still be effective with a child. She hired me as her associate pastor with full knowledge of my pregnancy. She sees I am determined to serve. She believes I can be both mother and minister. She did it. She knows it’s possible.
So her beautiful budding church – only a year old – hired me when I was 30 weeks pregnant. They call me their Pastor of Multiplication. The plan is that in a few years my husband and I will plant a second church – an offshoot of this church. My pregnancy gives them fodder for jokes about multiplication … when it comes to their church and when it comes to my family, and I love it all.
They let me preach my first Sunday with them. The pastor sees me as her partner, not her assistant. The church is excited for my expanding family. Barely having served the church for two months, they threw me a baby shower. They are giving me paid maternity leave. Their open arms and all of their generosity only makes me love the Church more.
And so when I say that I know I love the Church and I think I will love my kids, I mean it.
I’ve never been a baby person. Kids make it harder to schedule meetings or parties or ministry events. I hear about how exhausted I will be, and I’ve witnessed the struggle of parenting rambunctious, rebellious little ones. But parents say it’s worth it. They say it’s the hardest-greatest joy one could experience. I’m told it will make my ministry deeper in ways I haven’t experienced yet.
Scripture says children are a heritage – a blessing – from the Lord. I am truly looking forward to teaching my son about Jesus. I look forward to growing the Church in this very personal way. And with the confidence of my church community – who believes I can serve both them and a child – as well as the example of my lead pastor and the friends and women who write for this blog – my faith is strengthened.
So here I am, writing this on my due date – truly believing that God equips those whom God calls. God makes us complete in everything good so we can do God’s will. God has prepared us to do good works, and God will see it through. It’s all for the glory of Jesus, after all, and not for me.
I waited to get pregnant. I put off having kids. It looks like my baby is now making me wait a little longer for him to come into the world. Perhaps greater patience is one of the first things God is going to teach me through this new experience of motherhood.
And I will take whatever lessons I learn from God through this baby and pass them along to my congregation. Because I love the Church. And I will love my kids.
Chansin Esparza is the Pastor of Multiplication at Life In The City in Austin, Texas. She has served in connection ministry, young adult ministry, and youth ministry. She and her husband both have Master of Divinity degrees from Baylor’s Truett Seminary. Their first child is due in January 2016.