2014 Lenten Meditation #10

Saturday, March 15th, 2014 – The Second Saturday in Lent

How Do You Experience God?


Christopher suggested one of those little, soul-searching questions upon which to base a meditation. “How do you experience God?” Carrying such a heavy question during the day and taking it to bed at night causes lively thought and wakefulness. I finally realized how often I experience God in my interactions with other people. I have chosen a familiar subject, the Special Olympics, and a favorite image from that program to demonstrate my answer.

As the parent of a child with disabilities, I have had to alter certain parental expectations and to redefine success to fit our realities. When my daughter was invited to join the Special Olympics program at New Trier during her sophomore year, I discovered a philosophy in action that celebrates those altered expectations and new definitions of success.

My daughter’s Special Education teacher, Lew, was the leader of the Special Olympics program. He was a genius at recruiting adult volunteer coaches, adult volunteers, student helpers, and Northwestern University students, so that each of his Special Olympians had a personal coach, two student helpers, and another adult or a Northwestern undergraduate as a support group. As observers, we parents watched a well-crafted service operation and a developing community, where everyone was teaching, learning, and caring for one another. One night a week for five months, the Olympians practiced to develop skills in their chosen event with the help of their group of supporters. I witnessed the presence of a loving, patient God by observing the dedication of the volunteers and the dignity of the competitors. The student helpers served their special athletes with encouragement, comfort, and care. During that time they also learned to recognize the courage and humanity of the young people they were serving.

On the day of the Track and Field Special Olympics, I relish the boisterous, bittersweet pageantry of the Parade of Athletes and Volunteers. As families, friends, and fans of the program clap and cheer, the Olympians pass the grandstand with or without the assistance of their helpers, until they reach the spot where they watch the Opening Ceremonies. At the end of these festivities, clustered in colorful groups, wearing the colors of their schools or sponsoring organizations, the athletes recite the Special Olympics oath. “Let me win. If I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

I watch with happiness and apprehension, whenever the athletes test the skills they have practiced for five months. Although they have all worked hard enough to capture a gold medal, many will go home with a ribbon instead. I attend my daughter’s events and those of the other athletes as they face their challenges. For years, we, the grandstand crowd, waited for Tom, a New Trier Special Olympian, the only competitor possessing the necessary strength, stamina, and coordination to run in a mile-long event. When Tom sprinted across the starting line as a solitary runner, he escaped his daily limitations and raced the four laps around the stadium with a galloping, gold medal joy. We spectators always erupted with noisy exuberance as we shared his liberation.

To answer Christopher’s question, I offer Julie, a New Trier Special Olympics adult volunteer coach, who spent five months preparing Brian for his ten meter assisted walk. Since he usually used a wheelchair or a walker, we wondered how he would meet the challenge. On the afternoon of the competition, Julie and Brian’s helpers steadied him at the starting line. Parents, teachers, students, and friends gathered at the finish line to cheer his effort. As Brian laboriously walked the distance from start to finish without assistance, Julie did a modified duck-walk behind him with her arms surrounding him in a supportive embrace without ever touching him. Julie whispered encouragement and displayed an unforgettable smile of joy at his progress. They crossed the finish line as an awkward, beautiful unit. We celebrated Brian’s accomplishment with hugs and tears. Julie celebrated with that radiant smile. Julie is my favorite metaphor to describe a loving, patient, steadfast God who walks with us during our struggle from our starting points to our finish lines. Julie is one example of how I experience God.


Susie Sprowl


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2014 Lenten Meditation #9

Friday, March 14th, 2014 – The Second Friday in Lent

Words Matter


I love singing along with Josh Turner on Long Black Train:

There’s a long black train comin’ down the line,
Feeding off the souls that are lost and cryin’.
Rails of sin, only evil remains.
Watch out, brother, for that long black train.
Look to the heaven’s, you can look to the sky.
You can find redemption staring back into your eyes.
There is protection and there’s peace the same:
Burnin’ your ticket for that long black train.
‘Cause there’s victory in the Lord, I say.
Victory in the Lord.
Cling to the Father and his Holy name,
And don’t go ridin’ on that long black train.


It’s fun singing along. The tune is uplifting (check it out). And, yet, I pause and wonder about how I am influenced by the subversive message in the language. We have long associated black with sin and white with virtue. Consider these many terms: black mark, black sheep, blacklist, blackball. I embrace diversity; I love the opportunity to grow through the varied ways of approaching life, of celebrating life, of being in this world. And, yet, when I sing along with Josh Turner, am I somehow enforcing a deep-seeded notion in my white psyche that black people are less and white people are more?

Back in seminary, I attended Anti-Racism training, a requirement for all people in the Diocese of Chicago going through the ordination process. One particular exercise stands out for me, one I continue to think about. We were broken into two groups: white people and black people. We were asked to discuss how we describe our culture. When we came back together, the black people had much to share about their music, their food, their clothing, their language, and their social interactions. Us white folk were stymied. We didn’t know what to say. We didn’t know how to describe ourselves. In essence, our problem was that we didn’t know how to describe what to us is just so “the norm”. Whoa, scary stuff to face my ignorance.

How am I influenced by the norms of our language? Our lives are all about our relationships with one another. We connect through words. Words matter. How do my words hurt? How do my words help?


– Jeanne Stewart


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2014 Lenten Meditation #8

Thursday, March 13th – The Second Thursday in Lent

Absence of Fear


What would life be like for us is we were less fearful? I’m asking you to really think about that today–to pray about it, to focus on it, to let it sit with you until you get uncomfortable. More importantly, I’d like you to think about that through the distractions of the day.

What is likely to happen is that you will start with good intentions–“Christopher asked me to do this so I’m gonna give it a good faith effort”–and then the next thing will happen. The kids will need attention. Your spouse will not be able to find the car keys. The morning paper will be screaming its headlines at you. Your body will yearn for caffeine.

Distraction is how the Enemy of God works most frequently. Sadly, that’s all the harder he has to work most days. A little misdirection, a gnawing emotion, an important appointment, a resurfacing resentment. Any will do. As long as the Enemy can gain a little purchase on our attention, he’s perfectly happy. He does not want us to be focused on the things that really matter. He doesn’t need to stop all the light from coming in; he just needs it to be partly cloudy. That’s because we’re likely to focus on the clouds and miss the sun in between. I know this is true for you because it’s true for all of us.

Jesus doesn’t adequately explain why there are clouds or who put them there. It’s not because he doesn’t care or doesn’t have an answer. It’s because, in an important way, the answer doesn’t matter. Like He teaches in the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30), that will be taken care of in its own time, in God’s time.

The real issue is this: the presence of clouds in our lives activates our fear…and fear is THE BIGGEST distraction of all. We can justify almost anything when we are fearful. We rationalize it all and we do it because we’re scared…of not getting what we want or think we deserve, of getting left behind, of not being loved, of not making ‘a difference’. The list feels endless.

Fear is a liar. The list of our fears is not endless. Only God has no beginning and no end. Only God is endless. Our fear can be used by God just like any virtue. Whatever we turn over to God becomes God-like. Whatever we will not turn over turns on us.

So what would be different for us if we were less fearful? Less distracted? What would we, and others, see that is now hidden by distraction? If we learned to trust God more, what would there be more of and less of in our lives?

You and God and the people who cross your path will be blessed to know.


Questions for the day:
What would life be like if I was less fearful?
What are my principal distractions?


– Christopher Powell


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2014 Lenten Meditation #7

Wednesday, March 12th – The Second Wednesday in Lent

Old School


Do you like the phrase, Old School? I do. I’m not entirely sure why, but it suggests that there is an older, simpler, more effective way to get things done. Whether true or not, I like the idea it is.

The stories from Scripture are Old School, for sure. What I like about the majority of the stories is that while there are concrete things that happen (the Flood; the Exodus; the building and destruction of the Temple; Jesus raising Lazarus; etc.), often the stories themselves invite more questions than they provide definitive answers. In the cases where they provide definitive answers, the story of our Life With God simply starts a new chapter. Every ending is a new beginning, which sets us up nicely for the Death of Jesus and the New Beginning it occasions.

There is another aspect of Scripture being Old School that I like even more. It’s the fact that the stories are messy, as messy as our own lives. The creative process, even with God, is invariably messy. When the Ultimate Mystery deigns to join itself to our temporal existence, we should expect nothing less.

I remember when MTV used to show music videos. Talk about Old School. I enjoyed the ones that were dedicated to artists talking about how they wrote the hit songs that made them famous. I was fascinated listening to them…and without exception disappointed. I expected some kind of mountain-top experience to be behind these iconic works of popular music when in reality, these songs, like muses, floated down to the artists when they were doing something amazingly mundane. Some artists were under the influence when they created their art. Some were not very good people, by any measure. Some were walking to the grocery store or recovering from some trauma, many of which were self-inflicted. You get the idea.

Creativity is not linear. Love is not linear. Nothing living follows a perfectly straight line. Our attempts to straighten out the crooked lines of our existence are often met with disappointment or worse. Once straightened, they often get crooked again. Quickly. That’s why Jesus says that love covers a multitude of sins. It needs to. Each of us is guilty of at least that many offenses against God and each other, even if only in our thoughts. The process by which we become ourselves most regularly involves folding in the parts of us that are not lovely and aren’t going to be any time soon. When Paul figures all of this out, he writes, “God demonstrates his own love for us this way: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

God figured messiness (and sinfulness) into the whole arrangement of Divine Love for His creatures.


Questions for the Day:
How do I expect God to make Himself known to me? What am I waiting to ‘fix’ before I let that happen?


– Christopher Powell


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2014 Lenten Meditation #6

Tuesday, March 11th – The First Tuesday in Lent


The Season of Lent is forty weekdays long running from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. The number of days mirrors the time Jesus spent in the desert being tempted by the devil, but they also echo other important forty day periods in the Hebrew Scriptures: Moses on Mt. Sinai; Elijah on Mr. Horeb; Jonah preaching to Ninevah; Noah in the Ark; and the years Israel spent wandering in the wilderness before entering the promised land.

With these biblical events in mind, the Church set aside this time for fasting, prayer, and repentance in order to prepare for the miracle of Easter, and when appropriate, baptism at the Easter Vigil.

That’s all straightforward Sunday School teaching, a restatement of the basics of Lent. My question is this: As we prepare for the feast of Easter again this year, what about the initial followers of Jesus who witnessed the physical resurrection first hand? What was their preparation?

It is too easy to say that they had Jesus with them and that was their preparation. They often hadn’t the faintest idea of what He was talking about or pointing to or teaching during His three years of public ministry. They put all this together in hindsight, after He had risen, performed more miracles, and appeared to hundreds, according to Paul. Yes, they had intense conversations with each other hashing it all out in the Upper Room where the Last Supper was shared. They had the benefit of reflecting on all that Jesus had said and done in their midst while He was in their presence, post-resurrection. None of this, however, addresses the question of their preparation before the moment He appeared to them alive again, having died

Friday afternoon.

In a classroom setting, this is where I would ask, “How do you think the disciples were prepared for the miracle of Easter?” I admit there isn’t a ‘right’ answer to this question. I do like to believe, though, that what prepared them for this event was not the prediction of Jesus that it would happen (they didn’t understand that prediction; Peter even told Him it shouldn’t happen). I think the answer is much more basic.

I think it was their sense of expectation, of wonder. No matter how sure they were of where things were headed, they were at least open enough to consider something they hadn’t planned or anticipated could happen because…because that is often God’s way. “Your ways are not My ways, says The Lord.” Somehow, in the midst of lives lived much like our own, they left room for that to be true. When their moment came, they eventually wakened to the notion that God was doing something new, something dreamed of but never before experienced.

The purpose of any discipline we adopt is to create in our hearts the same sense of wonder, of openness, to the presence of God in our lives. The disciplines don’t work on God; they work on us. We have the advantage of knowing what God has done in Jesus. Our spiritual disciplines are designed to help us know more clearly what God is doing in us.

Questions for today: Do I expect to be surprised by God? What am I doing to prepare myself for that surprise?


– Christopher Powell


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2014 Lenten Meditation #5

Monday, March 10th – The Second Monday in Lent

“No, woman, no cry… Everything’s gonna be alright.” Bob Marley


Margaux sat on my office couch quietly weeping as she said: “Nobody can tell me that everything is going to be alright.” She had gone to her parents, professors, and her mentors for reassurance. She had consulted Buddhist websites and explored Nietzsche for a nanosecond. She was referred to me for assessment of suicidal ideation. I quickly referred her to Bob Marley. That wise man had told us, in no uncertain terms, that everything is going to be alright.

We live in a world of predictable unpredictability. We know, in general, how our days will unfold. We have schedules to keep and agreements we hold sacrosanct. Into each day some unexpected thing occurs. Sometimes that unexpected thing is an annoying event. Other times, it is devastating and our lives are changed irrevocably. It is human nature to rigidly hold to Knowing how things Should Be. It is human nature to cling to what was. We do what we can to build predictability into our lives. The alternative is overwhelming to us and we fear losing our status, our place in the world, our anchors, our lives, our minds.

I can tell Margaux that Everything is, indeed, going to be alright. In fact, I can promise it. Everything is going to be alright…she just may need to shift her definition of what “alright” means.

Our faith tradition asks us to risk dying into Life. It asks us to allow the transformation from what was to what is, trusting that all is as it should be. Transition from what Was to what Is can be a desperately uncomfortable time. It is human nature to backpeddle, attempting to stop the change or to negotiate desperately for a specific outcome. When we hold to an understanding of how things should be we close down the spaces in which our God can move and create with and for us. Life is dynamic, changing every moment that we live it, even when we are able to keep to our schedules and loved ones give us what we need and want. God is dynamic, in just this way, creating, giving, presiding in everything about us.

When facing hardship and fearing a specific outcome I shift the words of psalm 23 just a little bit: “Yea though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I need not buy and decorate a condominium there.” Our task is to Walk On. This is not the new normal. Things will shift. This too shall pass. Everything’s gonna be alright.

Where is God in this? What is my current definition of alright? Am I willing to be surprised by God?


Melissa Perrin, Area psychologist and Episcopalian


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2014 Lenten Meditation #3

Friday, March 7th, 2014 – The First Friday in Lent

A Thought and a Poem


Have you been asked what you are giving up for Lent? Have you asked anyone? It’s a fairly common conversation this time of year. It can be asked almost anywhere without being considered inelegant. People get asked at the train station, at work, at kid’s activities. Rarely, though, do we ask the natural follow up question, the one Geraldo or Matt Lauer or Barbara Walters would ask: How do you hope to be different because of this sacrifice, this new practice?

Being asked that question checking out at Costco would certainly temper the advantages of buying in bulk.

The question, however uncomfortable we might feel asking or answering it, is a good one. What are we really trying to achieve during the season of Lent? I had a parishioner in a former church whose wife loved to tell this Lenten story on him. He had a ‘boys’ weekend scheduled with his oldest chums. It was a five day, annual affair and because of the movable nature of Lent, it was coming right at the beginning of the season. And…he had given up alcohol. When his wife asked him how this was going to work on a long weekend of this kind, he replied that he had ‘banked’ his five Sundays so he was in good shape.

After being impressed that he knew that Sundays aren’t counted in the forty days, I was left wondering what his deeper thoughts about this were. Did he think that God was counting? That God was monitoring his spiritual gymnastics? That God has strong opinions about alcohol or keeping promises or being ‘one of the guys’ when the situation encourages it?

You have perhaps figured out that I don’t find death morbid or a forbidden subject. For me, it merely frames the question, “What is life supposed to be about for a Christian?” However each of us answers, I expect that our answers would include the idea of participating in life. Fully. With passion. With joy and with each other. So that we could feel at life’s end that we had returned the gift God has given us with some reciprocal sense of grace.


The poet Mary Oliver covers this in an excerpt from her poem:

“When Death Comes”

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press).



– Christopher Powell


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2014 Lenten Meditation #2

Thursday, March 6th, 2014 – The First Thursday in Lent

Jesus, John, and the Desert


In all the Gospels save for John’s, Jesus is baptized to considerable fanfare on earth and from Heaven. A voice from above cries out through the wilderness that this man, this Jesus of Nazareth, is the beloved Son of God and that God is well pleased with Him. A dove even alights. One can imagine that John the Baptist is both pleased and stunned by the raw truth the voice confers on John’s prior announcements. At this moment, I picture the Baptizer sitting down, but involuntarily; collapsing, really, into a sitting position. This is the moment when he realizes there is no turning back. What John has hoped, what he has heard, what he has believed, now…just is.

The journey of Jesus into Life will go through the valley of Death.

John has come from this place to which the Spirit is leading Jesus. John knows the ways of the desert, the things that go through a person’s mind when forced to live among the infernal intensity of rocks in a sea of absence. He knows that this experience sears into a man the notion that God alone can come to us when no other animate thing feels present. John knows what Jesus will experience and how He will survive. He even knows the why of it, as far as any man can know it. What John wonders at this moment is what kind of man this will make Jesus. John knows what it did to him: the desert’s heat forged a man who was relentless and unyielding, but it also confirmed for him that he was no lover of souls. He was purged of any need to comfort or soothe. His spirit is inflexible now: it will break but never bend.

John knows his thin-end-of-the-wedge place in the kingdom is meant to lacerate the hypocrisy of people, to open up a wound whose healing can only be accomplished by the salve of a Savior’s promise. He also knows that promise had to be made to people whose running from the deserts of life injured them more than being in the desert itself. The wilderness had hardened John; how could that environment make Jesus more supple?

John gets his answer. “Are you the One who is to come or are we to await another?” John asks from prison. Jesus replies by pointing to the wounds He is binding. The desert sun has hardened John’s heart; The Son in the desert has let it melt any hardness in his.

And so it is for each of us: the same ingredients designed to accomplish something in one person can be designed by the Spirit to do the opposite in another. Jesus and John learn this while in the desert, following.


Question for today: Do I believe God is using my current circumstance to shape me into the creature that both God and I want to become?


– Christopher Powell


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2014 Lenten Meditation #1

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014 – Ash Wednesday

 “The end is where we start from.” T.S.Eliot


Today is Ash Wednesday. Today, as Eliot points out, we start at the end. Each year on this day, we begin with the admission that we are simply dust and that when we die, we shall return to the ground. Today, we are honest about our fate: we get mixed in. We become indistinguishable from everything else subterranean. We become filler in between the rocks.

We will be gone, sooner than any of us likes.

Ash Wednesday begins Lent each year and begins the walk we make, spiritually, from where we are at this moment in our lives, to the Cross on Good Friday and the empty Tomb on Easter Sunday. It starts for us in church, at the altar, with other followers of Jesus. It starts with ashes, our prayers, the bread and wine made Holy by the Spirit, and our desire to lead a life closer to the one we want to present to God when we are finished with our earthly course.

The significance of ashes is clear: in Genesis, God takes dust, or dirt, and breathes life into that dust to create a human being. We are destined to become dust again at the end of our earthly life. Today, we admit that to ourselves and to each other, publicly. The ashes communicate what we dare not utter, even to our own souls. We acknowledge on Ash Wednesday that if we are to return to life after we die, any kind of life, we must rely on that power…again. The same power who breathed life into us by grace is the only power who can breathe it into us a second time.

This is our hope. Our outrageous hope.

The end, our end, is death. Not just death in the abstract, but the end. Of us. Of everything as we know it. The end includes the death of our loved ones. Of ourselves. Of nameless people on the planet who labor in other parts of the vineyard. We are surrounded by it. It scares us. It should.

I’m going to church today because it is my job. Not my paid job, but my job as a person, a person made in the image of God. I’m going because my earthly life will conclude. I’m going so I can remember that this inevitable end is also my beginning, the beginning of my trust that God will make provision even for someone like me.

I’m going to church today because I need to. I need to remember that my life is temporary. I need to remember the hope that everything I am currently living ends in God, and therefore, always begins again.


– Christopher Powell


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