Next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, which signals the beginning of Lent. For those who don’t know, Lent is the 40-day time period leading up to Easter Sunday. (In reality, it’s 45 days because Sundays are still supposed to be observed as a Sabbath.) Interestingly enough, Lent is not a tradition we find in the bible, but it was created by the church to help Christ-followers to prepare for Easter, and remind us Christians of the life and sacrifice of Jesus—specifically his 40-day fasting and temptation in the desert before he began his public ministry. (Read Luke 4:1-13 to get the whole story of that encounter.) Traditionally, Christians would fast daily until sundown, and they would give up all forms of meat–except for fish–on Fridays.
Lent is often perceived as a time of grueling self-sacrifice due to the whole fasting until sundown thing. Today, however, most of us just give up coffee or sweets. Tough life. Occasionally, though, Lent is taken as a more serious opportunity to combat habits like excessive consumption of food or alcohol, an addiction to pornography, or excessive spending of money. Whatever one decides, the goal behind the sacrifice is to prompt a time of prayer whenever you find yourself tempted to indulge in these activities. (e.g. If you normally go get a coffee at 10 am on Mondays, instead of buying a coffee, you spend those 15 minutes praying and reading scripture. Repeat as often as you get coffee.) It’s funny–well, kind of sad actually–but in my experience most people hear this challenge and are immediately intimidated by the idea of going without coffee for that long. Some people are legitimately addicted to coffee, and would be straight-up jerks for 40 days if they gave it up. To all of you who are in this position: by all means, keep drinkin’ the jo. I think Jesus would rather have us be able to love the people around us than try to observe Lent and be hurtful.
HERE’S AN IDEA, though. Lent doesn’t have to just be a somber time of sacrifice. It can also be a time of devoting ourselves to some new or different practice that also reminds us of Jesus. For example, I am a person who connects with God through music. So for lent last year, I decided to pick up learning how to play piano. I did my best to devote at least 30 minutes a day to sitting down and studying some aspect of the piano. Instead of dreading my bible and prayer time because it was a reminder of not being able to have something that I wanted, I looked forward to it because I was finally doing something that I had wanted to do for a while. Maybe for you this means getting into running or learning to crochet. The only suggestion I have is that it be something you can do while praying.
Now, to the people out there who are thinking, “Well, that’s not truly observing Lent because we are supposed to suffer like Jesus did,” I have news for you: WE ARE NOT JESUS. If you really want to be traditional with it, though, go ahead and give something up. I am all for challenging ourselves.
In fact, here is my challenge to you: Think of something you want to pick up over this season of Lent. Plan out when and where you will engage this activity, and try to do it at a time of day when you are most likely to follow through. For most of us, this means not late at night or early in the morning. Give God your best time of the day. He deserves it.
Also, if you are someone who struggles with a more serious problem, like an addiction to pornography, alcohol, or excessive spending, it’s time to start working on it. I encourage you to take Lent as an opportunity to invite God and your community into these areas of your life. Find someone you can talk to about it. Make plans to avoid putting yourself in situations where you often fail, and, most importantly, when you find yourself wanting to engage in these activities, PRAY. Ask God to help you resist giving in. And have grace with yourself. You’re not perfect. Yet.
Finally, let me know how it goes. Leave a comment.
Chris Sherman, UMin Student Leadership Coordinator
Sitting in a silent, dark room that is lit only by the white lights of a Christmas tree, I am reminded that tonight the waiting is over…
The hoped-for arrival of someone to ransom us from captivity has materialized in Jesus. One of the great gifts Jesus gives us is peace – in the midst of messy relationships, loneliness, chaos, illness, and even death, we can have peace.
This peace on the night Jesus is born comes not from having perfect lives, or really even the hope for a perfect life. It comes from having hope that even in the midst of darkness, there is Someone bigger than the darkness.
How often are we silent and still? If you’re like me, the answer is, “Not often enough.” But the reminder of Psalm 46:10 rings true: “Be still and know that I am God.” In our own stillness, we sense our smallness and we sense God’s vastness. From that perspective, we can see our need — and we can begin to understand the mystery of God’s meeting that need in the birth of Jesus.
Let’s allow ourselves on this night to be still and silent before a huge, almighty, powerful God — who in that power became a helpless baby. Of course, the irony is that true silence requires no song at all. True silence requires turning off the music, the TV, the computer (after you finish reading this blog, of course). Since turning off a racing mind is near impossible, simply bring your thoughts to Jesus, asking him to give you perspective, even on those thoughts.
Quiet our hearts, that on this silent night, we might hear Your voice… That we might be given perspective – of who You are and who we are. Wherever we find ourselves this year at Christmas, give us Your hope and Your peace. We want to rejoice in Your coming, but we know the importance of being still… Of ceasing our striving… Of taking deep breaths… Because we cannot rejoice in Your coming until we are acquainted with our own emptiness and also with Your ability to fill that void. Quiet our hearts, Lord.
Becky R, UMin Executive Assistant
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.
It’s easy for me to think of Jesus’ birth as a nice story. Or to get lost in the theology of the Incarnation and all of its implications. But the times when I am most in the Christmas spirit — when I come the closest to “getting it” — are the times when I think about the reality and the messiness of it all.
I love the context scripture is always giving us… Even the pages and pages of genealogies ground me in reality when I read the Bible. Not because I think it’s important to know Salathiel was the father of Zerubbabel, but because remembering these are real stories about real people impresses on me implications for my faith today.Bethlehem is a real place. Five years ago, I was privileged to visit Israel and spend time in Bethlehem. Honestly, I was not awed by the Church of the Nativity that has a marker of the exact location Jesus is believed to have been born. I was not inspired to touch that place because it had some kind of magical power. In fact, it was the lack of “magic” I felt in walking the streets of Bethlehem that awed me. It was the sheer ordinary nature of the town that moved me when I realized it was the place of Jesus’ birth.
God came to a real place and real people. The song O Little Town of Bethlehem is a reminder to me of that. Knowing that Jesus came in real time and space is just what I need to experience the wonder of this season of waiting.
If I hear the story of Jesus’ birth and don’t stop to think about the real place he came into — the night air, the sounds of the cars rushing by (just seeing if you’re still reading)… the sounds of the sheep nearby, the stars, the clouds, the hay… then I run the risk of turning Jesus’ birth into a nice story. It is that – but it is so much more; it is a life-changing story. When I imagine the real place of Bethlehem and put myself in the streets of that normal town, I am given the gift of the story coming alive, with the hope that it truly would transform my everyday life here in this real town.
Thank You for visiting us in flesh and not just in theory. Thank you for entering into our pain instead of observing from afar.
Help us to enter in to Your story, that we might be reminded of Your power that came to us in weakness.
Becky R, UMin Executive Assistant
If I had looked up the word, “Advent” as a child, I probably would have expected to see “a type of calendar that counts down to Christmas (AKA gift time!)” … But now, the season that precedes Christmas is more than a type of calendar to me. It is a time of waiting, watching, hoping, and anticipating God coming to earth in human skin.
It’s funny to anticipate something you know is coming because it really has already come. And yet we can’t wait to see it happen again. The cyclical nature of the calendar – the very idea that we celebrate the same holiday and season every ~365.25 days is a gift of grace.
I need the reminder. Anything I’m told once, or learn once, I forget. But if there is something to bring it to mind a few times subsequently, it begins to nestle its way into my brain. In fact, there are a few things in there I do not think I could get out if I wanted to and tried. Unfortunately, one of those things is too many digits of pi. 3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716939 are woven in there tightly because of a challenge in high school. (At least I am assured of always being able to calculate the circumference of a circle… So there’s that.) Fortunately, also lodged in my mind is the first passage of scripture I ever memorized, Psalm 4. Sometimes when I am trying to recall something completely unrelated – my grocery needs for example – what pops into my brain instead is, “Answer me when I call to You, oh my righteous God.” I don’t know why it’s stored in the same part of the brain as the recipe I need to remember, but it’s there, ready when I need it. Regardless of what it is – useless trivia or scripture, sports statistics or your friends’ favorite colors – most of us only remember something when we are able to put that which we remember to use multiple times, whether in our own minds or socially.
Advent is a gift. It comes around every year and it stays for 4 weeks, reminding us: We are waiting for something. We are incomplete. But fulfillment is coming. Let’s incline our ears to hear and prepare our eyes to see where God already is working in our world, that we might know our need for Jesus to come and understand the gift we were given in His coming.
We’ll be using this space for the next 2 weeks to reflect on Advent – not as a countdown to Christmas, but as a season to celebrate in and of itself… We invite you to read and reflect on what it means to wait for something and anticipate a gift which You already know is coming. How is this annual reminder of the gift God has already given a gift to you?
Becky R, UMin Executive Assistant
A couple days ago I started thinking, “How in the world am I going to do any other job besides this one after I leave in June?” I know that god is everywhere and always with us, but in this job He is so intensely, almost tangibly, HERE. I see Him in every student I come into contact with. I see Him every Tuesday night. I see Him and I feel Him saying, “Kelly! It pleases Me that right now you too are witnessing what is giving Me great joy!” It brings me intense joy to meet with students who want change. These students are busting at the seams with a want to make God more alive in this college community. I have been participating in this ministry for the last four years as a student and I never really understood and now I look at these students dreams and I feel alive.
You might be reading this thinking, “Thoma is over the top. This is fluff.” Friends, I want to say I mean every word of it. I have cried more and felt alive more in the past fews weeks about the Lord challenging me and pleasing me than I have let Him in a while. I feel like I am running with God right now. Though some things in my life – extraneous circumstances – may be difficult, and sometimes I am dragging my feet through the mud, at other times God is helping me sprint towards His kingdom, looking at all the glorious things He is doing in the lives of students all around me.
One particular example is freshman girls in sororities. I myself just graduated from a UW sorority and so I am fond of meeting these new freshman Greek students. I kid you not, I have interviewed freshman girls from 14 out of the 17 sororities to be put into Core Groups (The Inn’s small group Bible studies), and almost every one of them has spoken about how they are trying to find other christians in their house, how much of a blessing it has been to find other Christian girls in their houses, and how they want to bring more girls from their house to the Inn or just want to be able to love other girls in their houses as they have been called to do so. FRESHMAN sorority girls are telling me this. If this isn’t evidence of the spirit at work here in our Greek community, I don’t know what is.
Life isn’t perfect right now. Life is difficult and heartbreaking and challenging. But watching the ways God moves in others, and myself, brings me to tears of joy. I hope that you can see Jesus running along with you in your life right now too, whether He is trying to pull you out of the mud, or walking slowly down a new path, He is there with you.
Kelly Thoma, UMin Intern
I have been reading through the gospel of John. Today, I came across this passage: “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.” (John 14:21).
This got me to thinking, “Well I want to love Jesus. I want to love God, and be loved by Him. So, what are these commands that Jesus says I need to obey?” The first two commands of Jesus’ that come to mind are: 1) Love the Lord, your God, with all of your heart, soul, mind, and body, and 2) Love your neighbor as yourself. (I may have paraphrased here, so be sure to look them up for yourself.)
I feel like I understand the second of these commands. I might not always live it out, but I think I have a good idea of how I love myself, and the things I would do for myself. Therefore, I have a good idea of how to love my neighbor on the same level. My struggle is with the first of these commands.
Typically, you love someone or something for a reason. I love my family because they take care of me when I need help. I love my fiancé because she makes me laugh, and pushes me to be a better person. I love a good song because it makes me happy. You follow? Now, why I should love God is not hard for me to understand. I love God because he loves me, and he saved me from eternal separation from him (a.k.a. hell).
What I realized today is that while this is amazing, and blows your mind when you think about someone/something saving you from hell without you ever having done anything for them, it really only means something if you accept the fact that you needed saving in the first place. Without acknowledgement of our need to be saved, Jesus’ death is just further proof that human systems of justice are flawed. Maybe this is why I struggle to understand how to love God with everything I am. Maybe I have not internalized the reality that I needed to be saved. How do I get there?
Written by Chris S., UMin Intern
You would think that blogs are for brilliant thoughts. Well try this one on for size: It rains a lot in Seattle. For as long as I have lived in the northwest, you might wonder how I have not yet come to this realization. Twenty-three years old now, I think I might be on to something. The rain can be an extremely depressing thing. For what seems like two thirds of the year, we deal with the rain. Any good Portlander or Seattleite makes sure they have plenty of rain gear. We have boots, fleeces, soft shell jackets, umbrellas, rain slickers; the list goes on. We do a lot to protect from the rain. To those reading this, I am guessing you have all experienced what it is like to experience a rain storm without having anything to protect yourself. Your clothes are soaking, your socks are wet and each subsequent step gets a little squeakier. Over time you realize how heavy you are weighed down because of the rain. It is an unpleasant experience.
It is not instinctive to stand in the rain. Our natural reaction is to get out of it as soon as we can. The less we get wet, the better off we are. We run to any source of cover we can to find a sense of shelter. Sooner or later, we have to step back into the rain whether by choice or not. Sometimes we are lucky enough to avoid it, but it is inevitable that we will have to deal with the rain once again. The last thing we want to do it let the rain cover us.
Ever feel like you are just fleeing from the rain in life? I do. In fact, I do it all the time. My guess is you do too. There is a lot of hurt in our worlds that take on the form of “rain.” We don’t want to deal with pain. Particularly, trying to avoid the pain of losing someone you love. We run away pretending that we are going to be okay. We try everything we can to find shelter. We take on more hours at work; we go to the gym more often and even study harder for classes just so we don’t have to deal with the hurt. When those forms of shelter aren’t enough we turn to others to fulfill our need to get out of the rain. Drinking, Sex, partying, you name it. Any form of shelter is good for now. No matter the rain we are experiencing, it is the shelters we are desperately seeking in order to stop the rain. The truth is that shelters don’t stop the rain.
“So what do we do? Should be never step into shelter? That sounds stupid Michael.” I agree that would be foolish. But I urge you to step into a shelter that is sustainable. Step into a shelter that you know can ultimately withstand the fierce and unceasing type of rain. For me, that shelter is found in community of people that can engage the rain with you. I might even challenge you to find that shelter in a relationship with Jesus. How you do that might be for another blog entry, but hear it from someone who has sought out a lot of different types of shelter to deal with hurt: There is comfort and warmth in a shelter built on Jesus and his friends.
My final thought for this blog: As much as the rain hurts, there is something good about the rain. Something life giving and cleansing that makes the rain worth all the trouble. As depressing as it can be, there is something liberating about standing still in the rain. It is a unique feeling to surrender to the storm and lets the rain fall on you. If you can stomach country music you might know the song by Luke Bryan that says, “Rain is a good thing.” It is. Rain produces crop. Rain makes things grow. Likewise, it is the same in your heart. It is the rain that can lead to growth. Healing, time and good shelter are certainly a part of that process. Let the rain wash away all the pain of yesterday. We cannot control the rain. Sometimes you have to be in the rain to get out of it. So have courage and stand in it.
By Michael W, UMin Intern
Our whole lives we are trained filter information. More and more information is thrown at us each day and it would be absolutely impossible to process and dwell on all of it. So we are constantly searching for what is important and throwing out the rest. This is especially true in the school setting. A professor will sit up front and spew hours and hours of information at you. You are forced to try to grab hold of what is most important and naturally forget the rest. Also, when you are reading material, there is way way too much information for you to process it all, so we try to search for what’s most important, scanning, speed-reading or use cliff-notes.
We have all been in school for over twelve years. It has been deeply ingrained in is to process information like this. It is almost subconscious to filter as we listen and read. I would argue that almost every time we listen to someone speak or read something this happens. We search for what are they really trying to say? What is the Cliff Notes version? What’s the point?
All this filtering and overloading of information is hard work. It takes lots of energy to listen closely and process information. It’s no wonder we often dreed school, work, meetings, studying. Before we begin, we are anticipating being overwhelmed.
The understanding of how our education system and culture has trained us to process information is important. I was thinking about it last year and around Christmas time I had a revelation that was so so simple yet oddly profound. Jesus was born in an empty womb. Simple, obvious right? We all know that Jesus didn’t enter a womb with twins already hanging out in it. It may sound dumb, but it really struck me that if Mary had something in her womb, Jesus would never have been born. Jesus found an empty space and he filled it.
I then began to think about my life. We all want to touch, feel, experience Jesus. Maybe more than anything in the world. Yet, all the times I have designed to spend with him are usually full. I look ahead to a meeting and am already (even if it is subconscious) thinking about what am I getting out of it, what will I need to learn, what do I expect to hear. And the second I show up, I turn on the filter, searching for what is most important, or just wait for the meeting to be done so I can check the box on my to do list.
But what if we looked at meetings as wombs? Yes, a womb. An empty block of time carved out in our week where we expect Jesus to show up. What if instead of picturing a hour block of “meeting, listening, filtering” we pictured an empty space in which the Lord will arrive and fill.
Since last Christmas, I have been thinking about this visual image and trying to retrain my mind to come to meetings, Bible studies, conversations, the Bible, and work as an empty space which God can fill, instead of anticipating what I’m going to be doing/learning there and then getting ready to filter the rest.
I tried this with scripture. Instead of reading it to get three main points, I carved out thirty minutes and just read words. I was reading John 18 about Peter denying Christ. It was a story I had read a million times and I fought to just skim the words since I had been taught the “main point” million times before. Yet, when I stop just looking for the main point I noticed something I have never noticed before. Verse 18, which I probably skimmed over it a million times, says: “It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself.” Pointless right? Wrong. What this line did was put a picture in my mind. Peter stood by a fire and warmed himself. The night he betrayed Jesus, it was cold and Peter had to warm himself by a fire. We sometimes read these stories thinking these people were different then ourselves, but they get cold and have to stand by a fire to warm themselves. Peter was human. He was just a man as you and I.
That was the point the Lord wanted me to be reminded of that day, that the stories in the Bible are about real people, just like you and me. I didn’t need to hear the main point again, but just to understand in a new way that Peter was just like me.
Wombs. Empty spaces. What would happen if you approach your next Bible study, leadership meeting, conversation, or quit time as an empty space, with your mind stilled and emptied?
Maybe all you would notice at the meeting would be a genuine hello and smile when you arrived. Instead of filtering, you might be able to dwell on the truth you are deeply loved and cared about. Maybe in quiet time you might see a small word you never noticed before or in a conversation hear what the other person wasn’t saying. There is so much we are trained to miss.
Picture our days as series of empty spaces, spaces the Lord desires to fill. Still your mind, and watch as Jesus fills those spaces. You experience what we are all craving. You experience our God.
Written by Annika L.
A great Bible preacher I admire and respect once said, “It’s not hard to be saved–unless you want to be God.” He’s right. Salvation in the Christian sense is very simplistic–not much is required on our part. God freely gives it, and all we really have to do is receive it. Salvation isn’t earned, it’s given–not because of our works, but because of God’s grace.
So why does this concept of “being saved” still cause us to stir? After putting our faith in Jesus Christ and receiving salvation (as promised in Romans 10:9), we inevitably come back to these questions: Am I really saved? How can I know? What more must I do?”
My core group is currently reading through the gospel of Mark. In preparing for our study this week I came across the story of the rich young man. If you’re at all familiar with this story, you know it’s the one where Jesus explains the impossibility of camels traveling through the eyes of needles.
The story starts off with a man asking Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Notice his words, “What must I do?” Right off the bat this man makes himself the center of the equation. Read how their conversation unfolds in Mark 10:19-21:
Jesus: “You know the commandments. ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”
Rich young man: “Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Jesus: “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Notice how Jesus never directly answers the man’s initial question of “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” From the way this question is phrased, Jesus can already discern the condition of the man’s heart. “What must I do?” is the man’s inquiry. And Jesus responds as if to say, “You? What do you have to do? Well, what do you think you have to do?” To test the man’s faith, Jesus proceeds to list off the 10 commandments. Thinking he’s on the right track to salvation, the man responds confidently, “I’ve checked everything off the list! I must be in!” His pride, however, is quickly shattered.
“One thing you lack,” Jesus says firmly, “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor.” And the man was devastated.
What was Jesus getting at here? Does this story teach us that we can only be saved if we give away all our money and possessions? Surely not, or else Jesus would have taught this more explicitly to all his followers. Instead, the command to sell everything is specifically directed at the rich young man. As such, what can we extract from this story?
The thing that most astonishes me about Jesus in this passage is his ability to tactfully list off the 10 commandments, while purposefully leaving out the very first commandment of “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). In doing this, Jesus is testing the man’s faith and trying his heart. In essence Jesus is saying, “I know you have kept most of the commandments, but what about the most important commandment? Have you put your faith in me? Do you trust me? Do you love me?”
If we aren’t willing to worship God, then obeying his commandments will be a futile endeavor–such was the dilemma of the rich man. Although he was faultless in regards to obeying the law, he chose to put his faith in something other than God. Instead, he worshiped his wealth. He worshiped his reputation. And he ultimately worshiped himself. His friends probably described him as hard working, powerful, and self-sufficient. He was so caught up in himself that he didn’t see his need for God. In essence, he had become his own god.
And here is the irony: Being saved can either be the easiest thing in the world or the hardest thing in the world–depending on the view you have of yourself. For the person who wants to be Lord over their own life, it will be the hardest thing. For the person who is willing to give up their lordship, it will be the easiest thing.
It’s not hard to be saved–unless you want to be self-sufficient. It’s not hard to be saved–unless you want to be in control. It’s not hard to be saved–unless you want to be God.
Written by Tracy Spohn