Devotions Week One:
(Chapters 1 & 2: Compulsive Doing – Being and Praise)
Monday – Return
Bible Reading: Isaiah 30:9-18
The Old Testament word return means “turn around,” like an army doing an about-face to advance or retreat, or a person pivoting to either avoid you or to look you in the eye. I don’t know about you, but more than one time I’ve had to turn around in my life: pleading for forgiveness from someone I’ve hurt deeply or reversing a commitment to start over in a new vocation.
In Isaiah 30:9-18, the prophet talks to the people after they have tried multiple times to rely on their own wisdom, without asking for God’s opinion or help. If you return toward God, Isaiah says, you’ll be able to “rest in God” and be saved. (“Saved” can mean either life-and-death rescue or wholeness, maturity.) Isaiah continues by saying, “In quietness and in trust you will find strength.” He’s challenging the people to turn around their behavior – personally and as a nation – to see God’s face. If they do this they’ll not only change how they’re living but also know they are beloved in God’s eyes! What incredible news: despite all that they have done and not done, God knows them fully and loves them to the core.
How refreshing it is to realize that “in quietness and in trust” – trust in God, whatever outward events may be going on in our lives – we can discover a new life within. Knowing that God wants to live face-to-face with us can heal us and help us grow toward wholeness.
Dear God, please forgive me for trying to make my way all on my own. Help me turn around and face the fact of Your great love for me. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- To what extent do I feel or have I felt frantic or fragmented? How can I focus more on authentic being?
- In which parts of Chapter One of Growing Generous Souls could I relate to “doing, doing, doing?” What does it feel like when I get caught up in compulsive activity or trying to work everything out on my own? In what ways have I been able to catch myself and somehow “rest in God,” and how can I do this more often?
- What does today’s Bible text speak to my heart? What new thought or idea comes through it? What does it move me to do?
Tuesday – Spiritual Whitespace
Bible Reading: Exodus 20:8-11
I’ve always had a problem honoring the Sabbath – one entire day – and not just because Sunday is a very active day for a local church pastor. Whatever day of the week it is, the issue is consciously setting aside one day a week to let go of work schedules and projects, and focus on being instead of constant doing. We can find many obstacles to honoring the Sabbath: perhaps an always-on-the-go personality, feeling compelled to meet others’ constant demands, a mind that won’t quit thinking up things to do, or a hidden sense that the world really can’t do without us. No matter what our reason, these are rather lame excuses. After all, what are we doing to ourselves – or to our spiritual health – when we say we’re too busy to set aside a day to focus on God?
This Exodus text says the Sabbath is important because even God rested after six days of work. So who are we to say we are busier than God?
All the same, I was thrilled to read reviews of Bonnie Gray’s book, Spiritual Whitespace. Whether we are addicted to activity or more naturally time-balanced, she encourages us to set aside some time each day to deliberately seek to be present to God’s presence with us. We might imagine these blocks of time as wide margins on a page or the equally valuable positive and negative space in art.
It doesn’t matter so much where we are when we allow ourselves to experience this spiritual whitespace. We could be walking in a lovely forest or cradling a cup of tea in the kitchen. The where doesn’t matter, but the with Whom does. It’s amazing how God can make God’s Self known when we allow a little time to be together.
Great, cosmic God, what a gracious gift it is when You choose to be with us! Thank You for Your coming into human lives. Help me be attentive to You and give time to listen for You each day. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- Chapter Two of Growing Generous Souls refers to “spiritual whitespace,” to encourage us to give some time each day to be “in the moment of peace, quiet, and reflection.” When have I set aside time to simply be part of creation and alert to God’s presence? How could I safeguard (or perhaps expand) that time in the midst of my regular schedule?
- Where have I allowed myself to get over-busy or overly attached to one activity or role, and neglected another dimension of my life?
- What might help me structure a day each week or a time each day to consciously be in God’s presence?
Wednesday – Centered
Bible Reading: Psalm 23:1-3
Psalm 23 is one of those passages a lot of people learn as children, and one many of us fall back on as adults when life gets rough. But there is a lot more to it than just giving us comfort. Another dimension is the importance of getting centered again.
The first time I saw someone working on a potter’s wheel, the artisan took time to exactly center that lump of clay, before beginning to spin the wheel and hand-shape the piece. Years later, when two friends took up pottery, I found out why it is crucial to position the clay with care. They showed me what happens when it’s off center, and the wheel gets up to speed – the centrifugal force pushes that clay right off the edge!
I have felt on the edge of falling off a few times in my life. Using the metaphor of the potter’s wheel, the key at that point is to get back to the center: to realize that God is the only One who can guide me. To use another image, God leads me like a shepherd leads sheep to water calm enough to drink, and invites me to follow along healthy paths. God’s presence gives me the essentials for living, and enough safety to be able to lie down without having to watch for predators. In short, it is God alone who can restore my soul.
Careful Potter God, restoring Shepherd God, thank You for Your loving care in my life, especially when I get off center and need to begin anew with You. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- “Ultimately, God calls us to lead lives that only we can define, guided by the Holy Spirit,” says Growing Generous Souls in Chapter Two. From one day to the next, how can I look to the Spirit to help me find my center in God?
- What might I do to become more “alive, body, soul, mind, heart, and spirit”?
- Is there a certain time or place that helps me remember that I am part of God’s flock, and can follow a healthy path?
Thursday – Petition
Bible Reading: Philippians 4:6
Worry can become all-consuming. It drains our energy and blurs our focus. Yet it’s hard to let go of worry. In fact, the harder we try to run from it, the more strongly it can shadow our lives.
When I visited Greece years ago, I discovered a wonderful way to gently put worry aside. Men and women wore bracelets they called “worry beads,” which they constantly moved along the string, whether they were walking, sitting, or conversing with a friend. It was as if they were rosaries, a kind of finger prayer. Sure enough, when I got a set of beads and moved my own fingers from one bead to another, it encouraged me to turn my worries into prayers. Whatever I was doing, I could “worry” those beads anytime, freeing me up to focus on more important matters for that moment.
Christians in the first-century Roman Empire must have known a lot about anxiety, too – especially since they were considered criminals because of their allegiance to Christ over Caesar. Paul wrote to the house church in Philippi, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.”
A key in his statement is to turn worry into prayer as often as we can. Another essential is to put all our worries and prayers into the context of thanksgiving. No matter what our everyday circumstances, we have plenty for which to be thankful, including the opportunity of life itself, the gift of giving and receiving love with others and with God, and the chance to start over at any moment in our lives. Now that’s as good as worry beads anytime!
Thank You, God, for the chance to turn our worries over to You, to pray for ourselves and for others, knowing You are a caring listener and will respond ultimately for the greater good. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- Is it okay to ask for my own needs in prayer with God? Is it all right to pray specifically for others? What happens if I don’t hear the response I wanted to hear?
- How can I listen more closely for God’s words in the dialogue of my prayer life?
- What are the things I tend to worry about? How can I develop a habit of turning worry into prayer?
Friday – Integrity
Bible Reading: Psalm 46:10
“Be still and know that I am God,” says the poet on God’s behalf in Psalm 46:10. The statement invites us to become still in order to be more alert to God in the moment of “now.” You know what I mean if you’ve ever watched dogs go on the alert to warn of danger, or that it’s time for them to eat, or even just that it’s time to go for a walk!
In our case with God, we can trust that the message comes out of love. Psalm 46 begins by saying, “God is my refuge and strength, a very present (or well-proved) help in trouble.” Having encountered God’s assurance or caring when we went through difficult times in the past, we may have more confidence to trust that God will be there for us once again.
During those periods when we quiet our minds and still our otherwise constant activity, we can give ourselves fully to God, listening for God’s “voice” within us or through someone else’s words, or watching for a sign in the seemingly ordinary moments of our lives.
Practicing stillness and its accompanying reflectiveness can prompt us to develop greater integrity. This coherence takes place in moments when our actions align with our values. Integrity is not just holding onto “right” behavior (however we might define that). It is also allowing ourselves to end a stage or a relationship in our lives, letting go in order to embrace new beginnings. So integrity is not an endpoint, but a process that helps us move toward greater wholeness, seeking to become the same person both inside and out.
Such alignment can only happen when we quiet all those discordant voices within us that pull us in different directions. Making a quiet space doesn’t make God come to us. It merely clears up some of the smudges on our side of the window, so we can glimpse how God has been at work on us and around us all along.
Oh God, help me align my life with You, to develop greater integrity between my intentions and my actions, along the lines of Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- Whom do I look up to in my life to help shape who I am? What are their values or characteristics that I admire and want to show in my own life?
- Where do I share reluctantly or without joy? How can good stewardship and generous-hearted living help me make better choices?
- What am I being invited to let go, in order to make a new beginning?
Saturday – Sabbath
Bible Reading: Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Didn’t we think about Sabbath, work and rest earlier this week? Yes, on Tuesday, when we were in Exodus 20 and Bonnie Gray invited us to make some “spiritual whitespace” on the pages of our lives. But here, Deuteronomy says God calls us to observe a Sabbath day for a different reason than what is laid out in Exodus. We are to “set aside” (the meaning of the Hebrew verb “to make holy”) one day a week in order to remember the Exodus event, when God freed our ancestors from slavery in Egypt.
Working all the time is enslavement of the spirit – that’s the underlying message. When we refuse to rest, it enslaves not only us, but also those with whom we work. In Deuteronomy’s day those affected included family members, servants, resident foreigners, and the livestock who had to carry their produce and goods. For us today, it still includes family members, but also store owners and service providers, fellow employees, immigrants, and people who take our orders over the phone and online. Not working continually is a matter of justice and compassion for all our relationships as well as for ourselves.
This passage reminds us that we are not intended to enslave ourselves or others. Rather, we are to be stewards, given the gift of time to live our lives. We are meant not only to manage this time, but also to cherish it and use it to worship God.
God of all times and beyond time, please guide me to honor those with whom I live and work – and to honor You – by observing Sabbath in the rhythm of my life. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- What is the biggest challenge to me personally, as I try to get off the merry-go-round of endless doing?
- What do I picture when I imagine myself living, authentic and free to my true self in a loving relationship with God?
- When I imagine being “free,” what do I picture? Is it something I am free from, or free to do or become?
Sunday – Praise
Bible Reading: Acts 17:26-28
We all search for meaning somewhere, whether or not we use the word “God.” It may be in fame, success, art, music, literature, sexuality, children, or some other source. In Paul’s day, the residents of Athens, Greece named as gods their sources of meaning, building worship places for them all. When Paul visited Athens, he discovered a shrine built “to an unknown god,” and identified that “god” as the one Living God of the Jews, who sent Jesus Christ to humanity. Citing two of their Greek poets, Paul said that this one, true God is the One in whom “we live and move and have our being,” and who claims us as God’s own children.
When I let go of my preoccupations and allow myself to simply be with God, I notice things to be grateful for, whether they’re personal experiences, this Earth, fellow creatures, or human relationships. Simply noticing the flow of life around me lifts my heart to praise God – the one, real God, who creates and sustains us all, showing us love in countless ways, and supremely in Jesus Christ. Once I start naming reasons to praise God, I find the list never ends.
Loving God of Paul, the Athenians, and every one of us human beings, I thank and praise You for not only all Your blessings (immeasurable as they are), but also for who You are, beyond us, working within us and among us. From the glimpses that I can see, I praise You for all of who You are: just, compassionate, and willing to forgive. This I pray in the name and the way of Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- When have I slowed down to simply be with nature, with another person, or with God, and found myself turning inwardly to praise?
- For what am I most thankful to God? How do I personally express my praise?
- What are the sources of meaning in my own life? How does it help me to name the Living God as my ultimate source of meaning?
Devotions Week Two:
(Chapters 3 & 4: Practicing Presence – What Is a Soul?)
Monday – Bless God Back
Bible Reading: Psalm 103:1-8
That song keeps going through my head, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me; bless God’s holy name!” All that is within me: that must mean every part of me, every nook and cranny of present consciousness, meaningful memories, and hopes for the future. This is one way of defining one’s soul: ideally, the highest expression of one’s whole person inside and out, body, mind, spirit, everything.
With the poet in Psalm 103, I can urge my entire self to bless God for all that God has done and continues to do. God has forgiven my times of rebellion against God’s will; rescued my life from “the pit” of despair, disaster, or outright death; and faithfully claimed and loved me as God’s own. As with the psalmist, I have been satisfied with good, no matter what troubles I’ve had to deal with along the way.
That’s a long list of blessings! So from this viewpoint it’s clear that God blesses us – but is it possible for us to bless God back? “To bless” can mean “endow” or “favor.” This is surely God’s role, not mine. But it also defines it as to praise, honor, and give thanks. This I certainly can do for God. I can extend God’s blessings to others by caring for them, especially those who are cast aside by my culture and community. I can pass on God’s blessing and multiply those gifts by who I am and how I mature in both faith and action.
So in what ways can I bless God back?
Dear God, thank You for all Your blessings! Please guide me into creative ways to bless You back. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- In which ways is it important for me to know that I am a soul, imprinted by God from the beginning?
- How has God blessed me in my life this past month? This past week? How have I blessed God back, or how might I do that in the week ahead?
- Are there ways I can bless God back by what I do alongside other people in my life? How about those folks I just happen to meet? What about those I have previously tried to avoid?
Tuesday – Pray
Bible Reading: Romans 8:26
Too Busy Not to Pray is a book title I recall from years back. The book’s main idea was that when we’re feeling busy and overwhelmed, we need more time for prayer, not less. Recently I read a statement from a pastor and retreat minister who agreed by saying, “Prayer is food for our spirits, thirst-quenching water for our souls, and the fresh air we need for our spiritual survival.”
But if prayer is so essential, why is it so hard to find time to pray sometimes? Often I’m so distracted that my prayers are filled with busyness, including a long shopping list of how God is supposed to heal people and fix situations. It’s as if God is my lackey! So right from the beginning, I need to remember this is the Sovereign God of the cosmos, as well as the One who cherishes my tiny life.
I need to acknowledge how much mystery there is to prayer in the first place: the amazing opportunity to listen to and share with the Divine. And what a gift prayer is, with such a contrast between stumbling human words and thoughts in contrast to the Living God! But even though ultimately prayer is a mystery, it is still our primary avenue for communicating with God.
In the midst of this paradox, I remember what the Bible says: that while none of us fully knows how to pray, God the Holy Spirit actually prays alongside us, empowering and magnifying our intentions “with sighs too deep for words” (verse 26).
The important thing about prayer is not ensuring I follow some “orthodox” formula, but that I put my heart and innermost being into it, recognizing how God helps me to pray, and how God loves me, even if I struggle in vain to pray “the right way.”
Thank You, God, for allowing me to pray and be with You! I say this prayer in the name and the way of Jesus. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- What has been my experience communicating with God? Have I ever had a sense of God’s personal presence or felt God’s response?
- What is the most natural or most effective way for me to pray? Is there a particular time of day, place, or way of praying that encourages me to spend more time with God?
- What happened when my prayer seemed to be unanswered or met with silence, or when events went another way? Did I discover any healing or learning or comfort then? Did it change my relationship with God in any way?
Wednesday – Hope
Bible Reading: Lamentations 3:21-24
Lamentations is a tough Book to read! It crashes through my barriers of comfort and denial. It forces me to face the times I haven’t spoken up against those who prey on vulnerable people, thus violating God’s will. Historically, the writer of Lamentations witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians, seeing horrendous loss and sorrow among the people. They were grieving, enraged, afflicted, and at times self-righteous about their part in the devastation that had taken place.
But the four verses we read today are the hinge point in all of Lamentations and the single expression of hope. They remind us of God’s continual offer of mercy and faithfulness. The writer recalls the fact that God’s “steadfast love” never ceases, and therefore God alone is the source of hope for people in every age. So even in truly evil times (as those described in Lamentations), a person can say, “I pledge my life to You, God. I am committed to You. I trust in Your mercies precisely when I have nothing else to stand on. I’m in need of Your unconditional grace.”
So here is the basis for encouragement in every circumstance: God continually chooses to be faithful to me, even when I am not faithful in return. “God’s mercies are new every morning,” no matter what the season of my life. I am entirely dependent on the Holy One, who is willing to restore me to right relationships with myself, with others, and with God. Grace continually cascades over me, whatever else my life may hold!
My hope is in You alone, O God, from everlasting to everlasting. Help me to hold onto You, despite fear, pain, or anything else I may encounter. This I pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- What gives me hope on my down days or when times are especially tough?
- How can I try to share a sense of hope when someone I deeply care about is depressed or in trouble?
- When I worship together with others, how can I help people next to me remember a reason for hope?
Thursday – Trust God’s Faithfulness
Bible Reading: Psalm 63:3-8
Sometimes in the night I am so full of thoughts or unfinished things to do that I wake up and can’t get back to sleep. Occasionally, making a quick list of what’s on my mind can help me let go of them for the time being. But not always.
At such times I try to shift gears to focus on God’s “steadfast love.” The Old Testament (Hebrew) word for this phrase is hesed. It refers to loyalty to the covenant (agreement or vow) between us, regardless of how faithful we are to it in return. God has said, “I will be your God, and you shall be my people” ( Exodus 6:7 and elsewhere) and continues to work with us. No wonder an old-time translation for hesed is “lovingkindness!”
In Psalm 63, the person praying says, “I think of You on my bed, and meditate on You in the watches of the night” (verse 6). Why do I seek God at those times? Because You, God, have been my help in myriad ways, and Your love is better than life itself!
In those past-midnight hours, when I reflect on God’s unstinting devotion, it causes my soul to sing and to be satisfied. With such meditation, as the theologian Bonaventure once said, “We [can] encounter God’s presence at the heart of our very being.”
Thank You, God, for Your presence at the heart of our being, and for the opportunity to reflect on Your faithfulness, especially in the middle of the night. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- Have I ever felt a specific instance of God’s faithfulness to me? What was the situation? What happened next?
- What particular practices have helped me become more aware of God?
- What makes my soul sing? What is the essence of the song?
Friday – Wait for God
Bible Reading: Psalm 130:5-8
Waiting can be hard, as it is for guards during the last watch of the night, when their eyes strain for the first blush of sunrise. Or as anxious parents wait for the results of their child’s surgery and see the doctor coming down the hall. In some ways uncertainty is worse than knowing the bad news I fear may be coming.
It helps me to wait when I focus on God’s Word. As Psalm 130:5 says, “In God’s Word I hope.” But God’s Word is not the same as the surface sentences in the Bible. God’s Living Word comes forth when I read the Bible with my mind open to the Holy Spirit in each specific time and place. As Hebrews 4:12 says, the Word of God discerns between such closely joined things as soul from spirit, joints from marrow, and thoughts from intentions of the heart.
This practice is one of the “spiritual disciplines:” those activities which give a framework for living as a follower of Jesus Christ. As I described in Growing Generous Souls, we can read the Bible devotionally, for personal guidance. We can also do Bible study, to figure out who wrote it to whom, and so on. Either way, when I seek the Holy Spirit for understanding, the Bible gives deeper insight. When “my soul waits for God,” the waiting itself can be fulfilling – perhaps as rewarding as those relieved parents who see a smile on the surgeon’s face, or the guards on morning watch when they see the sunrise at last.
Loving Redeemer God, thank You not only for times of fulfillment, but also for our waiting with You for the fullness of Your promises. We pray this by the Spirit and in Jesus Christ. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- Have I ever “waited” for God to do something, change a person or attitude, or give me a sign so I can make the right decision? Has my waiting ever involved doing something to help prompt that change or make me (or someone else) more open to it?
- Have I ever experienced “the amazing coincidence” of the Bible, speaking in different ways to me at different times in my life? How have I or can I use Bible study or devotional reading to nourish my time of being with God?
- How can I open my mind to the Holy Spirit when I read Scripture? When I’m waiting for a positive response from other people or from God?
Saturday – Freedom
Bible Reading: 2 Corinthians 3:17-18
Being spirited and lively often is a good thing! I enjoy enthusiastic people who have a passion for life. “Enthusiasm” literally means “God within.” While it’s often best balanced by some sensibility, for many of us it takes a leader’s passion to inspire our group’s vision and goals.
“The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” Paul says to the Christians in Corinth. Here he is speaking of the Spirit of Christ – the real, Risen Christ, whom Paul encountered on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9). It’s not only Jesus’ teachings or moral example that inspires and guides us; it is the person of Jesus Christ. He is the personification of “God within,” who is now with us!
As I noted in Growing Generous Souls, our being “made in the image of God” (Genesis 1:26-28) means we become fully alive only when we choose to fulfill who we are: that is, the unique beings whom God has created each of us to be. This is real freedom! The Holy Spirit initiates my gradual transformation but does not control or contain me. I am like a plant growing, a flower budding and then blossoming, a snapdragon or carnation or rose – one of a kind, beautiful and free.
Glorious God above me, who also resides within, I praise You for the freedom You have given me to grow into Your image according to the unique stamp You have put upon me. May I give You glory by the person I become. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- Have I ever found myself doing precisely the opposite of what I wanted to do? What kept me from doing what I had intended?
- What does it mean to me that I am free in Christ? Have I ever experienced that? Where and when?
- What is it that helps me feel free inside, regardless of my circumstances? Are there things I can do or places I can be that help me remember I am free in Christ?
Sunday – Accept Being Made Acceptable
Bible Reading: Psalm 19:14
Many pastors, like me, have used this verse from Psalm 19 just before preaching, asking God to make our words and the meditations of our listeners’ hearts acceptable to God, our Rock and our Redeemer. But this text is not just for preachers. It’s for any of us who pray, preparing for a day full of conversations with others, asking that our thoughts and words will align with God’s will.
Restraining my words are tough enough; hopefully I pause for a moment before I blurt something out. I know I sometimes am too lax. But thoughts? There’s no way I can stop a thought before it’s out there in my head and in my heart! Clearly I cannot make all my words and thoughts acceptable to God. But maybe that’s the point: it is only God, my Rock and Redeemer, who can make me acceptable to the holy God.
So what is “acceptable,” anyway? Micah 6:8 says it’s to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with [my] God.” Okay, so that’s impossible for me to perfect by my own effort. It throws me back, every time, on God’s love and grace.
Ah, maybe that’s the whole purpose of this passage – grace, sheer grace!
Thank You, God, for Your cleansing, renewing power in my life, and for Your eagerness to make me acceptable to You. This I pray by the Spirit and through Jesus Christ. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- When have I tried to make myself acceptable to others? How did that turn out?
- When have I tried to be acceptable to God? Did that result in a feeling of fulfillment, or of failure? Did I learn something from that experience?
- Were there certain times when I realized I was entirely dependent on God to help me grow and become whole? What happened next?