Lent 2009

The ‘Turning of the World’

March 31st, 2009

Sharon KnissBy Sharon Kniss
EMU class of 2006

Read: Mark 11:1-11

Reflect: These 11 verses are entitled “Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem” in most Bibles. However, eight of the 11 verses are about finding a donkey, and the final verse concludes that Jesus “entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the 12.” Some triumphal entry that was! Sounds as though no one was even in the temple.

The followers of this movement certainly expected a triumphal entry. It didn’t seem to matter that this man came riding on a donkey; cloths and branches from the fields were scattered along the road and hosannas! were shouted as if this was their new king. But to come bouncing along on a donkey, enter an empty and dark city, and return to a “safe” place such as Bethany for the night? Sounds almost cowardly. [Of course the following verses which include the “cleansing of the temple” disprove any thoughts of Jesus being cowardly.]

At one of the most climactic moments in Jesus’ story, these verses show me the subversive and radical nature of Jesus’ life and ministry: bringing about the upside-down kingdom of justice and peace. He does not come as a new king of an earthly kingdom, but comes instead to disturb the imperial powers and initiate the re-establishment of justice for all people.

Not following people’s expectations, Jesus heads toward Jerusalem taken by a donkey and apparently without a welcome horn fanfare or battle clash when he first steps foot in the city. Yet he heads towards Jerusalem with determination, far from sitting on his bum in complacency, but listening to the creative voice of God and taking part in this magnificent drama which turned the world on its head.

Harry Belafonte’s song “Turn the world around” says: “We come from the fire, living in the fire…go back to the fire, turn the world around. … We are of the spirit, truly of the spirit; only can the spirit turn the world around.”

In the reflective space of Lent, we consider our radical calling as followers of Jesus. We come from the fire and are born of the spirit: we are a part of this earth and this history but are created by God and bear God’s spirit in us. We must reclaim our roots and our purpose and help turn the world around.

Respond: How am I participating in this “turning of the world”? Have I been expecting and waiting for triumphant entrances or am I prepared to see and take part in the creative working of God around me in potentially surprising and unexpected ways?

Our Lives in God’s Hands

March 30th, 2009

LauraBy Laura Lehman Amstutz
EMS alum and Seminary Communication Coordinator

Read: Psalm 31:9-16

Reflect: A few nights ago I woke up in the middle of the night with my mind racing. Maybe it’s happened to you too. Something mysteriously wakes you up and suddenly your brain is on. You’re thinking about the next project at work, or the strange comment your co-worker made, or a problem with a friend or family member. And then, if you’re like me, you start worrying about why you’re not sleeping or how you’re going to accomplish those things you’re worrying about if you’re tired from staying up all night worrying about them. I eventually develop a “world is against me” attitude during these midnight worry sessions.

Sometimes I wonder if our world or our country is sleep deprived and has on some level developed this same sense that everyone is against us. When I first read this passage the phrase that stuck out to me was “Terror all around.” We live in a “terror all around” world. News media are always trying to convince us of the next big thing to be afraid of – E. coli in our tomatoes, lead paint on our children’s toys, terrorists on our airplanes, the countries economy crashing down around our ears. We feel like the world is against us.

It’s hard to tell from the passage whether the writer of this Psalm was paranoid or whether he or she was actually being persecuted. Were the fears real or imagined? And maybe the real question for us and for the writer is: does it matter?

In the end the writer says, “You are my God.” The writer proclaims that even in the midst of fear (real or imagined) God is God. Everything is ultimately always in God’s hands. Our lives are in God’s hands, and God can save us.

The Psalmist concludes this section of the psalm by asking for God’s face to shine, to be able to see only God and not the fear and darkness or terror of the world around us. The writer remembers that salvation comes from God’s steadfast love, not by worrying about what will happen next.

Respond: God, when the fear starts to press in, and it seems that there is terror all around, let your face shine, and your steadfast love be my salvation.

God Leads from Failure to Life

March 27th, 2009

MarkBy Mark Wenger
Director of Pastoral Studies, EMU at Lancaster

Read: Psalm 51:1-12

Reflect: Psalm 51 records King David’s searing lament after the sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband. All David can see in the moment is his filth, the ugly trajectory of his life, messed up from the very beginning, all leading to this shameful swamp. David cries out to God: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” God bows low and comes close.

A parable: I was a boy of about five years living in Ethiopia. Our family went on an evening picnic with several other families along the Awash River. After supper the grown-ups got to talking; we children raced and squealed in a game of tag. The sun set and dusk began to lower over the African landscape. Heedless in my dashing, I ran off the top of a bluff, tumbling about twelve feet to the bottom of a dusty dry creek bed. When I stood up, it was utter darkness. I could see absolutely nothing. I started howling at the top of my lungs, “I’m blind, I’m blind, I’m blind.”

My dad heard my cries and came running. He couldn’t jump off the bluff; it was too high. So he had to take the long way around. He scooped me up, held me, spoke softly and took me to the river. He washed my dust-coated eyeballs and I could see again.

At the heart of the Christian story is the plot-line that unfolds from human trouble to God’s grace. Paul Scott Wilson claims that this movement from trouble to grace is the “basic grammar of the gospel.”[1] From blindness to sight, from death to life, from brokenness to restoration, from bondage to freedom, from dirty to clean-as-new. This is the plot-line of God’s salvation story. For you, for me, for the church, for the cosmos. That spells hope.

[1] Paul Scott Wilson, The Practice of Preaching, rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007) 160.

Let the Whole World Follow Him

March 26th, 2009

Joyce HedrickBy Joyce Hedrick
EMU alum and current disability support services coordinator

Read: John 12: 20-33

Reflect: As I read this passage I noted something that I had never noticed before nor heard in any Lenten message as Jesus was going to Jerusalem because his “hour has come. . . to be glorified.”   Perhaps because of the many cross-cultural experiences I have had, I noted that John points out that there were some Greeks – perhaps Greek Jews or even Gentiles – who were there to worship at the Passover Festival, too.  They wanted to see Jesus and spoke with Philip to get connected.  It is almost with a new revelation that Jesus seems to realize that it was now that his time had come.

Yes, he had met Greeks and Gentiles before, but now was the hour – for all.  He says that as he would be lifted up all people would know his saving power and be able to proclaim the message to everyone so no people would be excluded.  When we exclude others we are refusing to accept Jesus as Lord.  His Lordship is voluntary and we choose to accept him and follow him in full obedience no matter the personal cost.

Last May I visited Cambodia and experienced a growing Christian church there.  I was humbled as I learned what these Khmer people had gone through since the 1970s.  The general population was slaughtered for no good reason except that the powers of Satan were in control.  Christians stood up for Jesus Christ even as they were grossly tortured beyond what the mind can even imagine.

Over and over again, they refused to be disobedient no matter the personal cost.  They followed Jesus’ example as he went to the Cross.  They gave glory to God, shared their own salvation stories, and revealed the way to eternal life.  In camps along the border in Thailand, those who escaped told Jesus’ story oftentimes then returning in the face of certain death to Cambodia to help others.  They planted seeds for what the Church is becoming today.

Can we here in our communities stand up with that kind of faith – a faith of obedience that Jesus requires of us no matter the personal cost?  Can we face death so that all people might know the saving power of Jesus?

Respond: Lord, help us to grow in our commitment of obedience.  Help us to accept all people and exclude none.  Help us to be strong enough to face death no matter the personal cost.  Amen.

Learning Obedience through Suffering

March 25th, 2009

NelsonBy Nelson Okanya,
2003 EMS alum, Associate Pastor at Capital Christian Fellowship

Read: Hebrew 5:5-10

Reflect: Have you ever been tripped up by a biblical text? Well, I was when I read the text above in preparation for a class I was teaching at the Mennonite Theological College of Eastern Africa. The words “learned obedience although he was a Son” did not compute well in my mind. So I read it again and again because I wanted to understand the passage before some bright student confronted me with what seemed rather blasphemous at first glance. Growing up in Africa, suffering was part of daily life not the exception. Salvation in that context among other things meant alleviation of suffering because faith in Jesus “freed people” from suffering. Jesus suffered in our place therefore we ought to enjoy the benefits of his suffering when we accept him as Lord and Savior; meaning no suffering. This text challenged my students and me to view suffering differently; faith in Jesus does not necessarily mean end of suffering but that suffering provides an opportunity to display our obedience to Christ.

The text says that Jesus learned obedience through suffering! And “having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” Does this mean obeying Jesus at all cost? The answer is in the affirmative. The sufferings of Christ are an example to us who follow him. We ought to follow his example by obeying him in our daily lives in the same manner that he obeyed his heavenly father. May this time of lent be a time of reflection and of self examination in light of the life of Jesus our Lord. In what areas of my life do I need to obey Jesus during the time of lent? May I choose to be obedient regardless of life’s curveballs including the current economic difficulties! Remembering that in his suffering, Jesus displayed his obedience to the one he called Abba! (Mk 14:35-36). He is therefore my inspiration.

Respond: Lord, may I not only be a beneficiary of your suffering but a daily living example of your obedience; for it is in your suffering that I have been saved.

Honest Confession

March 24th, 2009

Pat SwartzendruberBy Pat Swartzendruber
EMU Volunteer

Read: Psalm 51:1-12

Reflect: There is a Christian myth which claims that as a result of a longer life, we achieve greater capacity for goodness, compassion, humility along with other virtues of God’s character. To my surprise, I am simply faced with more choices; shall well-worn patterns and habits formed over the years persist or shall I search, break and renew myself and my understandings of God’s ways?

The psalmist acknowledges a great gulf between God’s virtues and our human thoughts, actions, and habits. Sin, iniquity, transgression, and evil are named as part of the human condition. At any age, in any place and time, the gap between human experience and God’s ways is painfully real.

Going one’s own way, following old habits and refusal to acknowledge human error is typical human behavior. The psalmist might have tried to justify or reason a way back to God. “Surely I have been a sinner from birth…” says the psalmist suggesting a life of difficulty from the time of conception is a primary cause of sinful ways.

Overcoming human instinct, the psalmist chose openness and honesty, “surely you desire truth….” It is into this context that God reveals traditional sacrifices and burnt offerings are no longer adequate for reconciliation.

“My sacrifice to God is a broken spirit and contrite heart…” states the psalmist. As we individually fail and as we fail as a community we are invited to walk toward reconciliation with heartbreaking truthfulness and humbled spirits.

Respond: It is not years of life which save us from failure; it is commitment to honesty and truthfulness about ourselves and our behaviors. Increasing years of life, however do provide time for us to reflect and deepen our alignment with God’s character and join the psalmist, “singing of God’s righteousness and declaring God’s praise.”

Mourning Turned to Joy

March 23rd, 2009

Clydeby Clyde Kratz
89′ EMS alum, Pastor at Zion Mennonite Church, EMU trustee

Read: Jeremiah 31:13-23

Reflect: Jeremiah wrote words of comfort to the children of Israel during a time of deep anguish, defeat, and uncertainty of the future. Babylonian military leaders were hauling Israelites into captivity. Survivors on the journey to Babylon mourned the death of family members and remained uncertain about their own future. Those held captive by the Babylonians were at the mercy of their captors. The anguish and despair they must have experienced gives the impression of all of ones dreams dashed against the rocks without any hope of reconstruction.

Jeremiah is not offering harsh words of destruction like he once did, but of optimism, hope, and restoration.

The current economic outlook in the United States and Canada feels a lot like ones dreams dashed against the rocks without any hope of reconstruction. Unemployment is rising as national corporations reduce their labor force. The banking industry has demonstrated the inability to stabilize the financial markets even with government bailouts. Governments seek solutions of cash infusion and tax reductions in order to stimulate the economy. Retirement accounts across the nation have been reduced by 20-40% over the last year. Families are caught in transition. Senior citizens are experiencing the limitations of their fixed income status. Youth and college age students are unsure how to dream about the future. Families with small children count their coins carefully to plan for the monthly expenses.

The word of hope from Jeremiah is that all this will change. Our present limitations are not indication of the future. The affirmation of Jeremiah is God is doing a new thing. The activity of the world sets the stage for an unfolding plan of God that is yet to be realized. The radical changes that lie ahead are God’s providential plan. We are invited to pay attention to the road signs. Engage in prayer. Meditate on scripture. Serve others. Proclaim Hope. Through these activities that connect us to God and to others we will see change – mourning to joy; despair to hope; hatred to love. All of these things reflect the radical change that God has in store for our future.

Respond: Empower us to be a voice of hope. Open our eyes to see the unfolding plan of God in order that we may join God’s work of restoration that will impact all subsequent generations. Grant us wisdom and courage. Amen.


March 20th, 2009

SaraBy Sara Wenger Shenk,
Professor of Christian Practices, EMS Associate Dean

Read: Scripture for this week

Reflect: I’ve heard countless times about how some people are lost and some are saved; that being saved happens during a specific moment in time when you give your heart to Jesus, and after that magic moment, you’ve got a ticket to heaven: you are no longer lost.

I’m not here to debate the veracity of that particular slice on salvation. What I read in this week’s scriptures, however, is that our God is in the business of saving, big time! Not in a slam dunk, now you’ve got your ticket and are home free kind of way. But in a daily way, saving us over and over.

No sooner were the Israelites saved from Egypt than they felt lost, furiously complaining about their miserable food and parched wasteland existence. When the vicious snakes attack, God sets about saving them again, countering poison with a raised serpent of bronze, an emblem of salvation.

In a beautiful, poetic litany, the psalmist recounts how some people wandered in desert wastes, hungry and thirsty, and the Lord in his steadfast love delivered them. Some sat in darkness and gloom, prisoners in misery and irons, and the Lord saved them from their distress. Some were sick through their sinful ways, enduring affliction, and the Lord saved them too, delivering them from destruction. When some foundered in ships on the sea, God brought them out.

And then the climax: for God so loved the world, he sent his son, not to condemn, but to save. God who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loves us, makes us alive in Christ, Paul declares, so he might show us the immeasurable (yes, you heard that right!) immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us. And it is by grace that we are saved.

The odd thing is that this saving business doesn’t seem to provide an easy ticket to heaven. Paul endured whippings, shipwreck, imprisonment, and hardship galore. While we have our good days, most of us continue to stumble and fumble along; we get sick, lose our jobs, despair and sometimes feel downright lost. It’s on those days most of all, that we need the reminder that God is determined to save us, not once, but over and over again, everyday: “Let those who are wise give heed to these things, and consider the steadfast love of the Lord.”

Reflect: How have you considered God’s steadfast love and salvation?

When Life is Laced With Touches of Grace

March 19th, 2009

Jim BishopBy Jim Bishop
EMU public information officer and class of 1967 alumnus

Read: Ephesians 2:1-10

Reflect: The five o’clock traffic jam whistle has sounded. Time to shut down the computer, turn off lights, lock up the office and welcome the weekend.

Suddenly, I noticed the white ring around the fourth finger of my left hand where my wedding band should be. What happened to this silver symbol of betrothal to my dearly beloved of 43-plus years? I had no recollection of fiddling with the band (it fits snugly but not tightly on my finger).

I frantically searched the office floor and environs and stirred up nothing but a few dust bunnies, all the while thinking to myself, well, it’ll be awhile before I replace the ring. We paid $20 each for our original 24K bands in 1967. Some years ago, I lost my original wedding ring in the saltwater of Ocean City, N.J., and it cost nearly $200 to replace it.

Suddenly, a voice, a strange force – whatever it was – drew me downstairs to the kitchen area. I looked in the sink, and there’s the ring, dangling precariously in a slot at the top of the drain. Had I turned on the water again, it would have disappeared forever. The ring must have slipped off into sudsy water when I earlier washed a coffeepot and mugs.

I slipped the wayward band on my finger, breathed a prayer of thanksgiving and marveled at what felt like an unexpected touch of God’s amazing grace.

Grace is like that – freely available to us, but we go out of our way to avoid accepting it as God’s gift to us – with no strings (or rings) attached, except . . . to give up, forsake, turn our backs on our former ways.

Ephesians 2:1 reminds each of us that “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived . . .”

Verses 4-8 continue: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Theologian Karl Barth said, “Grace must find expression in life, otherwise it is not grace.” I am finding that grace so often springs forth in those least expected times and places. I fear that I keep myself so busy that I will miss certain grace-filled moments when they come. This Lenten season is an opportune time to quiet myself before God, to listen, to “be still and know,” to expect the unexpected – and then not to boast.

I’m also glad to have my wedding band back on my finger, a reminder of promises made to my significant other and of the touches of grace she bestows.

Grace – unmerited, boundless, free. Truly amazing.

Respond: “Be still and know” that grace arrives when it’s least expected.

My “Enough”

March 18th, 2009

Jason GarberBy Jason Garber
EMU web and new media coordinator and class of 2005 alumnus

Read: Numbers 21:4-9

Reflect: I’ve started to recognize a pattern in my life: a sine wave of contentment and dissatisfaction. For awhile I go about being grateful for what I have and content with where I’m at in life. Then somehow I lose that peace and I want more, thinking I’d be set if only I had X or could achieve Y. That level of dissatisfaction isn’t sustainable, so after awhile my soul is so greatly out of balance that I have a crisis and reawaken to gratitude for and contentment with my portion again (though it often takes me awhile to disentangle myself from the obligations I took on while yearning for more).

It’s easy to want more than your “enough” in a society so filled with options and opportunity. In the decades since the Depression, people in my line of work have done a good job of creating a climate of constant consumer dissatisfaction. Economic growth, the secular god of the modern world, insists that every year we take more from the earth quicker, turn it into more things, sell more things, consume more things, and throw away more things. Our houses double in value, our portfolios grow, and a guy named Bernie can give you a 46% return using an investment method that’s “too complicated for outsiders to understand.”

This text from Numbers shows us the idea that “enough is just a little bit more than you have” isn’t a modern invention. Though the Israelites were once in slavery, God liberated them and was leading them to the Promised Land, yet they complained about the desert environment. Though they once were hungry and God had provided them with the “bread of angels” (Ps. 78:25), they complained about the miserable food.

For their complaints, the people received a curse from the desert rather than a blessing from heaven and found themselves dying instead of being sustained by manna. It was a strong wake-up call to God’s people. They realized their sin (the serpent symbolism must’ve been painfully obvious!) and asked Moses to intercede for them with the Lord. God didn’t remove their affliction right away, but did save them from the natural consequences of their sin (death). The serpent on the pole was a symbol of God’s forgiving love and concern for God’s people.

Enough comic

Respond: When is personal drive and ambition healthy and when does it lead to spiritual poverty? What practices and disciplines help keep you from sliding into dissatisfaction and ingratitude?