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?
Devotions Week Three:
(Chapters 5-7: Growing as Becoming – Seasons of the Soul – Gratitude)
Monday – Rejoice Always
Bible Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Gratitude is not only an onrush of thankful feelings; it is also a way of thinking. When I reflect on what someone has done for me (giving me a gift, or their time and involvement or help and care), it affects not only the way I act toward that person, but also how I relate to everyone else and how I see life in general. Often I notice how much the goodness I’ve received outweighs my struggles and setbacks.
Growing Generous Souls speaks about gratitude in two ways. First, it’s like a flashlight, lighting up the goodness that’s already there. Second, it works like a muscle, growing stronger with each repeated use. In this way gratitude can grow from a one-time response to a habitual mindset, even a way of life.
It's not surprising that the biblical Paul focuses on grateful thinking when he writes to the Philippian Christians. He tells them to think about whatever is true, honorable, just, and pure. This is not some Pollyanna outlook. He’s writing this letter from prison after receiving beatings and all kinds of abuse. But he chooses to focus on what brings him joy.
“Rejoice always,” Paul declares, “again I will say rejoice.” Our “prayers and requests” to God expand and deepen when they’re given in the context of gratitude. Often I have made gratitude my focus for the day, and the lens through which I look at life.
Thank You, God, for the ways You urge me into grateful thinking and give me opportunities to express my gratitude as I relate to others. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- What has happened to me in the past week or month which brought me joy? Say or write a prayer of thanks.
- Researcher Robert Emmons says that gratitude has the power to heal, energize, and change lives. When have you experienced this? How has your life changed, or (if you have not experienced this) how would you like it to change, because of your being grateful?
- What relationships have helped me through troubles or seemingly empty days? For whom am I grateful? Have I told them lately?
Tuesday – Be Grateful in This Season
Bible Reading: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
Whether through songs, poetry, or Scripture, many people have heard Ecclesiastes’ words about different seasons in life: there’s a time to be born and a time to die, a time to keep and a time to let go. Something about that perspective can help us take things in stride. But it can also help us be grateful for the good which each season brings us.
A few examples of different seasons: When I was young, sometimes I felt it would take forever to become an adult. I was eager to be old enough to drive, or to date, or to launch out on my own. While some people have positive adults in their upbringing, others must grow up essentially on their own. But each stage in life can have moments of meaning and beauty. Even failed dreams have life lessons to teach, benefitting us despite the struggles.
As Growing Generous Souls notes, each new season of our lives requires us to let go of some familiar patterns in order to be open to what comes next. That is not always easy, but invariably it brings new discoveries. We grow spiritually when we glimpse God’s generosity in each season and seek to mature in our values and decisions. Can we be grateful for what God offers us at each point in our lives, open to the gift of this present moment?
Some periods in my life have had deep valleys and jagged edges, while other times seemed happy and smooth. Thank You, God, for bringing me through all my seasons and for whatever has brought me closer to You. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- What season is my soul in at this point of my life? Is it in its springtime, beginning to bud, or perhaps in autumn, gathering inner strength? How might the last stages of my life be an opportunity to nourish and replenish, to give back to those coming after me? How is God prompting me to grow or mature?
- Are there any valuable lessons I have learned from the tougher times in my life? What can I be grateful for today?
- Who is God inviting me to become, as I explore this particular season of my life?
Wednesday – Growing in Love
Bible Reading: 1 Corinthians 13:9-13
Growing up is not a matter of consistent progress. Physically, most children go through an “awkward stage” as they move into adolescence. During adolescence, the physical and emotional ups and downs can get even more dramatic. So it is with our spiritual growth, as we figure out what we believe, or what is the most helpful way to pray. Or how to open ourselves more fully to God.
Nevertheless, we do change over time. The apostle Paul said it’s like seeing ourselves and the world through an old-time mirror with all the wavy distortions of ancient glass. In eternal life, when we can see the complete picture, he said, our current, partial understandings will drop away.
Growing in love can be a bumpy process: learning how to care about other people, to care for ourselves, and, in so doing, to care most of all about God. But what we aim for, helps form who we become. As Christian mystic Thomas Merton said, our lives are shaped by the goal toward which we live. This makes sense – if we think life is all just a power struggle, we develop in one direction. If we affirm Christ’s call to love, we grow in another way.
Thank You, God, for Jesus’ call to love more fully and for his example of how to live. Please help me grow in that direction, by Your grace. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- How have my personal dreams changed over time, causing me to strive toward different goals?
- What have my relationships taught me about growing up or maturing?
- What changes have I experienced after going through major life challenges? How have they prompted me to see myself and others differently?
- In Growing Generous Souls the author writes about a three-year cycle of themes in her Sunday school. What could happen in my own congregation if our Sunday school classes included “Generosity” as a fourth year in the cycle or as one of the main themes?
Thursday – Marvel at God’s Work in My Life
Bible Reading: Psalm 118:21-24
“I thank You, that You have answered me,” says the person praying Psalm 118 aloud in the midst of worship. Having asked for help in a specific circumstance, they must have seen a positive resolution.
Not all problems in life are answered quickly or to our liking, although when we look back on our lives, often we can see how troublesome times eventually worked out. Sometimes they include a lot of suffering with no reason nor apparent cause. Often there’s a life lesson about human behavior, whether ours or others’. And sometimes it’s just beyond our human understanding.
Even in times of mixed blessings, there are many things for which to be grateful. Several authors and pastors encourage us to list at least five things each day for which we are grateful, or to keep a daily Gratitude Journal. Intentionally listing each day our reasons to be thankful expands our awareness of the countless ways God blesses us. Simply being alive brings us many blessings (often taken for granted), from every breath we receive and give back, to our senses, thoughts, and dreams.
“It is better to take refuge in God than to put confidence in mortals,” said the psalmist. Thankful to have lived through a time of trial, the person paying has withstood their enemies. The end of the psalm calls us all to give thanks to God, for God is good, and God’s steadfast love endures forever. I can join in the psalmist’s affirmation, “This is the day that God has made – let us rejoice and be glad in it!”
Thank you for allowing me to take refuge in You, whether I see your answers to my prayers or not. I am grateful for all Your blessings, seen and unseen. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- Have I noticed any signs that God has helped someone I know? What was the result of God’s help? What was that person’s response?
- Where have I sensed God at work in my own life? Did I recognize it at the time, or did I realize it later? Or am I still waiting to sense God’s hand in my life at all?
- What five or more things have happened today for which I am thankful? For what can I joyously, deeply thank God?
Friday – Thank the Creator
Bible Reading: Psalm 136:1-9
‘O give thanks to God, for God’s steadfast love endures forever!” As part of the Jewish tradition, the person who prayed Psalm 136 made this statement three times in order to express the superlative. It’s as if they are saying, “Give your utmost thanks for God’s supreme and eternal steadfast love!” Today, we seek to thank God with equal intensity and superlatives.
Echoing that psalmist, we can thank God for the “great wonders” of our Creator, who “spread out the earth on the waters.” That ancient poet imagined waters beneath the soil coming to the surface as lakes, rivers, and torrential rains that flooded desert wadis during the monsoon season. Today, we add our knowledge of the intricate web of life on this planet, knowing that all life forms depend on earth, water, and air in just the right balance.
I thank God, “who by understanding made the heavens,” including the “great lights” of the sun, moon, and billions of stars (verses 5 and 7). The mystery of space-time boggles my mind! Scientists tell us that even our solar system was formed 4.6 billion years ago. They also say there are at least a trillion galaxies in the universe, each with millions of stars and an unknown number of planets. The vastness and complexity of space prompts me to want to see it all as the cosmos – the universe understood as one orderly, harmonious whole.
So how can my tiny, human response to the Creator be anything less than gratitude for the gift and surprise of life? I am thankful for every living creature, from primordial microbes to the Eagle Nebula (known as “the nursery of the stars”). God’s ongoing work in creation moves me to humility and to prayer.
God of all creation, thank You for the gift of life, and for the opportunity to worship You. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- What parts of God’s creation prompt me to marvel at God’s creativity? How do I respond to the natural world and to my fellow creatures?
- In what ways might I grow more fully into a life-giving, trusting relationship with my Creator?
- When I contemplate the cosmos, it can lead me to the mystery of life itself. How can I more fully express my gratitude to God for being part of this web of creation?
Saturday – Give Thanks to Our Redeemer
Bible Reading: Psalm 136:10-26
Psalm 136 continues as a song that overflows with gratitude, alternating lines between a worship leader and congregation: God did this for us! cries the leader, and the people repeatedly respond, “For God’s steadfast love endures forever!”
The leader reminds them of their history: God struck Egypt through the plagues – God brought the people Israel out, away from their slave masters – God divided the Reed Sea – God overthrew the Egyptian army that pursued us – God led our people through the wilderness – God gave us their land as our heritage – God remembered us in our low estate. And following each assertion, the people reply gratefully, “for God’s steadfast love endures forever!”
Today, what is our own common story of rescue and freedom? What is our shared tale that makes us grateful to be alive and part of God’s community? How about as a congregation? Or as part of our family heritage? As I think of these stories of God’s gracious intervention, my gratitude grows even more.
Thank You, God, for what You have done to free my family, my community, my people! You have brought us together as a living, faith community, each time offering us a new beginning. Help me to remember my history, how You have led us in the past, and how you can guide us in the future. This I pray in the name and the way of Jesus. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- Have I ever made a mess of things, and then gotten a new start? What were the circumstances? Who or what made a new beginning possible?
- Have I ever gotten out of a hostile situation? What skills or insights helped me escape danger? What external factors helped me get to a safer place? Where was God in the whole situation?
- Are there any blessings I have received unexpectedly along the way? What were the circumstances, and what did I do with the opportunities I was given?
Sunday – Thank God in Worship
Bible Reading: Ephesians 5:15-20
Be careful how you live, says the letter to the Ephesians. Live as wise person, who understand what Christ’s will is. Now that’s a tall order! Plenty of times I’ve struggled with what God’s will is for me in a specific situation. Then at other times God’s will seems clear enough – I just resist doing it!
But Paul follows this statement with a big hint to help us discern God’s will and live wisely. Be filled with the Spirit, he writes, as you sing your prayers aloud together and as you join in hymns, making melody to Christ in your hearts. Here he is talking about worshipping God together! Then he sums it up by naming our ultimate purpose for group worship – to give thanks to God “at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Group Study Guide for Growing Generous Souls says that gratitude is our response of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life. It’s the soil in which generous-hearted living grows. What have I learned about living wisely and understanding God’s will, through worship and relationships in my faith communities along the way? How have we multiplied our thanksgivings to God?
Great and gracious God, I thank You for opportunities to worship You wherever two or three people are gathered in Your name. I pray for those who worship around me, and for all who seek to glorify You by the way that we live. Guide my thoughts, words, and actions to reflect Your presence wherever I am. This I pray in the name and the way of Jesus. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- What difference does it make to worship and thank God alongside other people? How is that different from worshipping God when I’m by myself?
- Are there certain aspects of group worship (such as music, prayer, or listening for God’s Word) that more powerfully remind me to be thankful for what I have received from God?
- How does worship with other people help me “make the most of the time?”
Monday – Treasure
Bible Reading: Matthew 6:19-21
There’s a lot we can treasure in our lives: special moments with loved ones, meaningful experiences that have enriched us, having all our basic needs met – and many special things, too. Some possessions bring us particular delight; many bring us comfort and a higher place in the community; and countless other ones that we may take for granted as we move through our days.
What we have can bring a sense of security, as well: especially money in its varied forms – available credit, debit cards, ready cash, ongoing income, multiple assets, valuable property. Money buys us all kinds of things and goes beyond that – it also promises a sense of identity and fulfillment. And that can be a problem.
Growing Generous Souls, page 185, talks about “the rich fool” (Luke 12:13-21), who let his craving for more money and profits define who he was. He forgot about the needs of his wider community and thought his assets would bring security to his soul. It’s easy for us to lean in that direction, too, especially with the popular “money buys happiness” philosophy today.
But Jesus sees life from a different angle. Don’t store up for yourself treasures on earth, he says. Go for treasures in heaven. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” So where is my heart today? What do I treasure most? What truly satisfies my soul?
Thank You, God, for all the treasures in life! Please guide me to treasure what is most important to You. This I pray through Jesus Christ. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- What are my greatest treasures in life? What relationships, experiences, possessions? What place does money have in that equation?
- What more do I think I need? What more do I want? Is there anything I own that owns me by overly influencing my life? Is there anything that I so value in my life that it replaces my other values?
- At what point did I or will I feel content with the amount of money and things I have?
- How might I live more simply as far as my possessions are concerned?
Tuesday –Don’t Worry
Bible Reading: Matthew 6:25-33
Worry about economic issues can take over our lives, if we let it. Will I have enough food to put on the table? Can I keep up with the house payments, and have clothes for the kids? Whatever our level of income or assets, financial concerns can twist into worry.
But worry about our past actions or future challenges can’t do anything to change our circumstances. Jesus says worrying cannot add even an inch to our height or an hour to our lifespan. We’re to put our focus on God’s Reign – God’s transforming presence among us – and on “righteousness:” living in a way that is turned toward God.
Worries float to the background when we concentrate instead on prayer and plans. Prayer resets our focus and pushes us to listen for God’s guidance. Plans require assessment of our resources and lifestyle. Before I can make those plans, I may need to change my habits and priorities, looking at the big picture with God in charge.
An excellent first step is to write a Money Autobiography, to clarify the sometimes-conflicting messages I’ve received. (See pages 226f. in the book). As I sort through my experiences with money, which ones teach me valid lessons about finances at this stage of my life? Which ones can I let drop away?
Thank You, God, for how You care for the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. Help me to trust in Your care for me, too. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- What lessons have I received along the way about the value and use of money? Which of those do I want to let go now? Which do I want to embrace as I move forward?
- What have I most worried about related to money? What events or new behaviors have helped me deal with those issues?
- Has my faith affected the way I look at my financial situation in any way? Has it changed my purposes or the ways I use money? Have I “let” God touch my money habits in any way?
- What is the one insight about money that I’d like to pass on to my family members, children, grandchildren, or others in younger generations?
Wednesday – Enriched
Bible Reading: 2 Corinthians 9:10-15
God supplies us richly! As our study text notes, we can witness the profusion of creation, appreciate the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, and live deeply in each present moment. But in Paul’s letter to the house church in Corinth, he names at least two more ways: God supplies raw materials for us to survive and thrive, and also gives us the abilities and ingenuity to do good things with those gifts. All together, God’s gift of natural resources and human creativity result in “many thanksgivings to God,” benefitting those who share their gifts as well as those who receive them.
We can be thankful at many points in our receiving and giving. When I was recovering from surgery, a member of my congregation brought a delicious, hot meal that provided more than one dinner for me and my husband. That she was willing to drive curvy roads way out to our home in the hills was another gift for which I was grateful. And the fact of her caring enough to plan, make, and deliver the dish strengthened our friendship even more. Her giving produced many “thanksgivings” (acts of saying thanks) in me as the receiver – and only God knows what thanksgivings it may have prompted in her.
Thank You, God, for all the ways You enrich our lives, in both receiving and giving. We pray this in the way of Jesus. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- What has my experience been with the God who supplies? In what ways, if any, do I feel rich?
- Have I ever seen a receiver give back to a giver by the way they respond to the gift? Have they ever passed it on or multiplied the giving in some way?
- God has given me passions and abilities that have led to my involvement with others. How have I been able to help other people with those gifts? How has the act of sharing them for others enriched me, as well?
- Have I ever experienced “the surpassing grace of God” in a situation where I chose to do something to help meet another person’s need, or where someone else helped me in my need?
Thursday – Plan
Bible Reading: Proverbs 27:23-27
Proverbs is unique among the Books of the Bible, full of sentences where the speaker looks back on life experiences, identifies a pattern of human behavior, and draws a conclusion that the listener can take as advice. In Proverbs 27, we are told to pay attention to our flocks of sheep and goats, because riches do not last forever. When the flocks are properly taken care of, they become a stable form of wealth that is self-perpetuating – but when they’re not properly cared for, the owner loses essential future income.
Most of us reading these verses today depend on jobs for money instead of sheep and goats. How do we take good care of the money we earn or receive, so it continues to be a source of income for us in the future?
The way of wisdom lies between two extremes related to money. One extreme is constant anxiety, which keeps us from thinking clearly and taking positive action. The other extreme is carelessness, when we throw our money away, providing no security at all.
So the way of wisdom is to plan ahead with an eye to the future, but also to live meaningfully in the present. Growing Generous Souls offers us steps to follow some core financial habits (p. 252). It is important to develop or recommit to a financial decision-making process that honors our values (p. 238), and practice First Fruits Living (pp. 262ff.). Becoming more responsible with our money is both a spiritual issue and a practical process.
Dear God, please guide me into wise ways of dealing with money so I can glorify You with all my habits of living. This I pray in the way of Jesus. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- Have I ever made a budget and lived within it? What has that been like for me and/or for my family?
- What do I think of Lynn Miller’s concept of “inherent usefulness” (Growing Generous Souls, pp. 215f.)? What for me is the inherent usefulness of my house, car, clothes, salary, or pension?
- What were the childhood messages I picked up about money? Which ones of those do I want to let go? Which ones do I want to keep as I go forward?
- What is the hardest part of deciding how to use the money available to me? What are the rewards when I plan well and can move toward my financial goals without worry?
Friday – Be Content
Bible Reading: 1 Timothy 6:6-12
“Contentment” is not a word we hear very often these days, especially related to how much money we have. More frequently we hear something along the lines of the bumper sticker: “I owe, I owe; it’s off to work I go.” We may wonder if we will ever have enough to make ends meet and also live “the good life.”
In 1 Timothy 6:6-12, Paul reminds me that I brought nothing into this world and will take nothing out of it. In light of our mortality, it makes sense to pursue “godliness and contentment.” Godliness is an old-fashioned word. But the concept (eusebia in Greek) means to live in a way that respects or reverences God. This word for contentment does not mean being sated with all that we desire. Rather, it is the feeling that our basic needs are satisfied in order to live by the positive values listed in today’s Bible text: right relationship with God, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. In one other passage (2 Corinthians 9:8) Paul links contentment with the purpose of sharing with others. This reminds me of the once-popular saying, “Live simply, that others may simply live.”
Money itself is not good or evil, but the love of money – obsession with getting it, hoarding it, or not having enough of it – results in all kinds of evil attitudes, relationships, and/or actions. Our study book notes how money can be a helpful tool for good – but it also can be an awful god. Worship of money results in the diseases of “affluenza,” “credit-itis,” and other destructive attitudes and behaviors (pp. 211ff.).
I start each day with gratitude to God for the necessities I’ve been given, and seek to put a high priority on godly living. When I remember these values, I find the inner resources to respond to challenges with contentment and “sufficiency:” an inner calm that no external circumstance can take away from me.
I thank You, God, for supplying my basic needs each day. Help me discern the difference between needs and wants so I can share with others out of a grateful heart. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- How have I experienced money’s power in my life? Are there any ways in which I have regarded it or treated it as a would-be god?
- In what aspects am I a spender? A saver? Generous? Stingy?
- In what ways am I a good manager of money or a poor one?
- How does my relationship with money affect my faith?
Saturday – Share with the Poor
Bible Reading: Proverbs 22:7-9
“The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender,” says the Book of Proverbs. In the Ancient Near East – and many places since – slavery could be the lot of debtors unable to pay off what they owed. Although most people with debts today don’t have to worry about imprisonment, they can feel chained to their jobs, deal constantly with insistent creditors, and ultimately lose everything if they can’t pay off what they owe.
Yet millions of people think that having to live with debt is a necessary part of the American Dream. They know the worry of “making ends meet” every month. They continually have to handle constantly accruing interest, and sometimes succumb to perennial ads that keep them buying more. (See our book, pp. 181-220.)
For me, how I deal with money is a spiritual issue. As Proverbs says, ongoing, deepening debt can result in the weapon of hubris – self-aggrandized arrogance – within the creditor’s heart, even as it “reap[s] calamity” on the one who continually owes. Thankfully it is possible to get rid of debt (See pp. 233-235 for five basic steps.). With determination, strengthened by a supportive faith community, the process of reducing our debts and balancing our finances can be a joyful celebration, as we seek to balance our responsibilities and our call to care about others.
As we free ourselves from the burden of worry or fear about debts, or pride about riches, we are increasingly able to see our neighbors: those who are homeless, hungry, or living on a few dollars a day.
Holy God, I pray for both discernment and courage to be free of any disabling debt in order to share with those who have less than I have, for Your sake. This I pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- In what ways have I personally known the lure of wanting more than I could reasonably pay for and maintain? When and how have I resisted it? What has helped me develop my own understanding of what is “enough?”
- What gives me the hope and persistence to get out of debt or become more faithful or consistent in staying out of it?
- How could getting free of debt help me be able to share with those in greater need than I?
- How am I doing with generous awareness of my neighbor? What can I do to show care for someone struggling around me, by sharing what things I do have?
- What might “generosity” look like in my current financial situation? How might I be more generous toward myself and toward others, in ways beyond money, as well?
Sunday – Let Go
Bible Reading: Philippians 3:7-9
One does not have to physically give away everything in order to “let it go.” Letting go is a mindset which results in action and a sense of freedom. If I accept that I don’t have to have my home or any particular thing that is precious to me, then I can see it as a gift to keep, share, or give away for Christ’s greater purpose. And actually giving it away to help someone else can be freeing and fulfilling.
Due to age and circumstances, many seniors have to “downsize” physically at some point, to let go of almost all the possessions they have accrued over a lifetime in order to fit into a small apartment or a room. At that point their focus has to be on “What few things do I need to keep?” instead of “What do I have to give away?”
It’s a lot easier to let go of things if I do it voluntarily, for a greater purpose. Firstfruits [sic.] Living author Lynn A. Miller says Christians are meant to look at our possessions not for a value they have in themselves, but in relation to what God has called the person to do. For example, if I’m called to host strangers in time of need, I may need a larger house; otherwise a much smaller one will do. He invites us to think of the things we have according to their “inherent usefulness.” For example, a car is for transportation, not for status or any other symbolic purpose. If we live in a metropolitan area, perhaps we can use public transportation instead. With this mindset of letting go, we can winnow down to just the objects we truly need, in order to focus on what is most important.
In Philippians 3, Paul says there is no cause for boasting based on our religious rank or family heritage or legacy. Knowing Jesus Christ far surpasses anything else. So everything that we have – all of it – is “trash, refuse” (the Greek word Paul uses here) when compared to living face-to-face with God and trusting in Christ. So whether we have lost a lot of possessions in this life, have never had much, or have given it all away, all of it is worth nothing compared to being found in Christ and having faith in Him.
Prayer: (Part of John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer)
“I am no longer my own, but Thine. Put me to what Thou wilt, rank me with whom Thou wilt. . . . Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to Thy pleasure and disposal.” Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- What is God’s specific call to me at this time in my life? In light of this, what particular things do I need to have in order to fulfill God’s call?
- How does Lynn Miller’s idea of “inherent usefulness” fit with the many or few things I own? How much of what I have do I truly need? What could I do with the things I don’t need, to help others?
- In What Do What I Own and What Owns Me?, author Daniel Conway warns about letting our possessions possess us (mentally, emotionally, etc.). When have I caught myself being overly focused on a certain thing that I owned? When has attachment to something I have ever gotten in the way of my relationships?
- If a huge fire, tornado, flood or other disaster suddenly took away my house, car and all that I own, what would I still have? Who would I be?
Monday – Partners in the Gospel
Bible Reading: Philippians 1:3-11
In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi, he says, “I thank my God for your partnership from the first day until now.” I love that word partnership! If we are “stewards” related to God and to what God has given us, then we are “partners” with one another in the enterprise.
Specifically, we are partners in the gospel, seeking to show God’s love in Christ by how we act from day to day. “All of you share in God’s grace with me,” Paul declares. His statement includes us today. We continue to get to express God’s grace in whatever way we can by what we choose to do and how we respond to others.
Our study book talks about Charles Lane’s description of Ask, Thank, Tell.2 He presents it as a caring process to encourage and affirm giving to ministries through the church. What an effective way to “provoke one another to love and good deeds,” as Hebrews 10:24 puts it – but we can also adapt “ask, thank, tell” to encourage ourselves to keep sharing God’s love through what we do personally, as well.
Taking this individual approach, I can listen for stories of people helping others and ask myself, “Is responding to this opportunity part of my personal mission? Is this service something I am called to participate in?” I may choose to support the effort with my prayers, personal involvement, and/or financial gifts. As I see the results of their activity, I can give thanks for how the ministry is improving people’s lives. Then I can tell other people about its fruitful work, so they can consider joining in the partnership through this common endeavor.
Paul’s own words to the Philippians carry both thanks and blessing for their partnership with him. He says, “May your love overflow more and more, for the glory and praise of God.” His blessing extends to you and me, in our time, as well.
1 – The word for “partnership” is koinonia, which I call “Communion community.” For more on its meaning and use see Growing Generous Souls pp. 281ff.
2 – See Growing Generous Souls, pp. 261f.
Thank You, God, for the people You send for me to work alongside in helping others, and for those who help me along the way. Thank you for the opportunity to make a positive difference in another person’s life. Please help me to discern Your specific call for what I should do and not do, what I am meant to give and to receive. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- When have I felt a sense of community with other people? What were we doing at the time? What made it a significant experience?
- Looking back, have I experienced “partnership in the gospel” with others in a common project or with a community of some kind?
- Has there been a moment when I felt blessed somehow while I tried to help someone, or someone helped me? What was that like?
- In which of the four spheres of my life – family, friends, neighbors, or people around the world – do I feel the greatest support for caring for others? Where have I felt the greatest challenge? Who encourages me to care for other people as I go through my life?
Tuesday – Grateful Worship
Bible Reading: Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Often on Sunday mornings I’m coming in “on the run,” hurrying to get seated before the pastor begins the worship service. Yes, I have shared in devotions at home with my husband, but authentic, deep-down worship doesn’t begin for me until I sit down, take some slow breaths, and quiet my crazy inner dialogue for a while. At some point I remember that God truly lives here – not in this set-apart building but wherever I am, wherever we gather (Matthew 18:20).
No doubt the worshiper in Deuteronomy 26 has done a lot more preparation than that. S/He has thought about personal family roots and where his or her worship truly began. “A wandering Aramean was my father,” he says, most likely referring to Jacob, the man who struggled with God and became Yisrael, “he who wrestles with God.” His name became the name for all the people who chose to follow his God.
Jacob was that “wandering” Aramean. The Hebrew word for wandering also means perishing. That’s significant, since if you wander long enough without a home, you likely will perish. But God entered into Jacob/Israel’s history, saw the people Israel suffering in a foreign land, and guided them to freedom through the leadership of Moses, Aaron and Miriam. Eventually God brought them to a new home.
So the first thing each member of the Israel community did was to bring their first-fruit offerings in worship, grateful for all that God had done. This section of worship instructions may be the oldest piece of the entire Bible. It reminds me to bring all my life, all my history, to God in worship. I can celebrate in gratitude for all that God has done to bring me to this place in my life, urging me to go forward in faith and love.
God of our Exodus freedom, thank You for hearing me, for letting me struggle with You and go forward with You. I am grateful. Despite all Your mystery, I trust You, God. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- What kind of stories do I bring within me when I come to worship? Can I see God’s saving actions in my personal history, my family-, cultural-, or national history?
- What is the first thing I want to listen for or say to God? What would help me more fully “worship God in spirit and truth”? (John 4:23)
- What has God done for which I am truly grateful? In what ways would I be “perishing” if it weren’t for God’s action in my life? In my people’s life?
- How can I show thoughtful worship and all-out gratitude to God when I enter into personal worship? When I worship alongside others?
Wednesday – First Fruits
Bible Reading: 2 Chronicles 31:5-10
More than seven hundred years before Christ, the great reformer king Hezekiah took over Palestine’s southern kingdom of Judah. He cleansed and rededicated the Temple, which had been desecrated by worship of foreign gods years before. Then Hezekiah called the rebels from what was left of the northern kingdom of Israel as well as his Judeans in the south to celebrate Passover together in Jerusalem.
This offering began the tradition of “first fruits giving,” where people brought the first of their harvests and livestock to worship God. It was a system that cared for the poor and gave the priests and Levites (who had no land to harvest) a way to devote their lives to ministry and service.
The idea of first fruits giving has been with us ever since. Growing Generous Souls describes first fruits living as giving to God the first and the best of what we’ve been given and managing all the rest according to God’s generosity toward us.
Related to giving out of income, the “tithe” (meaning ten percent of whatever a person has) was what the Old Testament people started with, but they gave multiple tithes for different occasions. What is important is not the amount or percentage we give, but the priority. First share with others as part of God’s healing work, then save, then spend (p. 264).
Having discovered the importance of first fruits financial giving in my twenties, I appreciated how it helped me order my responsibilities. Nevertheless, I tested it not once but three times, spending first and then giving to others. What a painful lesson! Not only did I run out of money before the next paycheck; I also felt more isolated from crucial Christian relationships. When I came to trust first fruits living as the best way for me, I found more support, and more stability, and more hope.
But first fruits is not just about giving. First fruits living provides a framework also for how we prioritize our time each day and each week, our participation in group worship, and even our relationships.
So what about the use of my time? Clearly God does not need certain religious rituals from us, but we human beings do much better when we make worship and prayer our first priority. Decades ago, a friend shared a saying with me: “The day has less chance of unraveling when it’s hemmed in by prayer.” My experience says that’s true.
Thank You, God, for the opportunity to love You back by setting priorities in my life. Please help me discern my priorities related to all You have entrusted to me. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- How do I encounter God in prayer? Is there a regular pattern of it throughout the day or week? What about worship with others each week or each season? How can a focus on worship and prayer help me be more open to the Spirit?
- When I think about the use of my time, what do I usually make sure gets done first? How well do my activities fit with what I say are my values?
- Sometimes I get things in the right order that fits for my life. When that happens, what does it prompt me to do?
- Is there a new beginning that God is prompting me to enter into at this point in my life? What might it look like? How might it urge me to rearrange my priorities?
Thursday – Knowing God
Bible Reading: Jeremiah 22:16
Josiah was the other great reformer king after David, who began his reign 53 years after Hezekiah. He found in the Temple what we know as the Book of Deuteronomy, containing God’s Law (which means “Teaching”). That discovery led Josiah to bring the people back to worship of God once more, after they had fallen once again into unjust practices and worship of foreign gods.
In today’s passage, God says King Josiah “judged the cause of the poor and needy. . . . Is not this to know Me?”
The bottom line in our faith is not what we say, but what we do. Personally, I like to explore theology (which just means the study of God). But we know from both the Old and the New Testaments that it’s how we live that is the true witness, not what we say. As the Book of James puts it, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:17)
In the Old Testament language, “to know” means to know someone personally, to be in personal relationship, even as close friends, family members, and husband or wife know each other. So my actions are meant to show that God and I are on a first-name basis. Being an advocate for those who are poor and in need is a clear way to express God’s care.
God of my life and of every bit of creation, I want to know You better and worship You. Please give me the courage and love to turn my face fully to You and open myself up to Your transforming love. This I pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- How am I doing this week? If people watched my actions closely, would they see anything that expresses God’s justice and love?
- Where are people living in poverty right around me? Who are assisting them in practical ways? How could I support their efforts?
- Do I have a personal relationship with God at this point in my life? How have I been nurturing our relationship?
- What “reforms” are needed in my life? What would it take to initiate one? What would be the benefit? Have I asked God to empower me to begin it?
Friday – Hilarious Giving
Bible Reading: 2 Corinthians 9:6-8
In St. Paul’s day, when a famine hit Jerusalem and its surrounding area, the Christian house church there helped their starving neighbors by giving whatever food they had in their own homes and fields. But as the famine wore on for months, the Jerusalem Christians exhausted their stores and went hungry themselves. So Paul connected with all the Gentile (non-Jewish) congregations asking for a special offering to help the Jerusalem region.
In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth, he reminded them that “the one who sows bountifully will reap bountifully,” receiving blessings in the process of giving. He wanted them to think carefully about the importance of the offering before deciding what amount to share.
“Give as you have made up your mind,” Paul says to us, as well, “not reluctantly or under compulsion.” This means that arm-twisting, harassing or pressuring is not part of healthy Christian giving. I am to decide for myself what is generous and timely to respond to the needs of my neighbors. And I’m encouraged to do it in two ways.
One way is to be intentional by planning ahead. That’s why Paul asked the Gentile congregants to decide and gather their gifts in advance. At the same time, he reminded them of another way to give, too. “God loves a cheerful giver,” he wrote. The Greek word for “cheerful” really is “hilarious” – meaning giving with joyful abandon.
So Paul reminds me “both to plan ahead for generous giving, and also to delight spontaneously in the moment of giving itself.” (book p. 258). After all, says Paul, the purpose of having enough is not only so our basic needs will be met, but also so we’ll have enough to “share abundantly in every good work.”
Thank You, God, that You give me enough blessings to live so I can share abundantly in Your good work on earth. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- How can I deal more effectively with the incessant advertising I receive on my phone, computer, television, and everywhere else? What one specific thing can I do to reduce its intrusion in my life?
- If an ethic of enough can lead to contentment and a sense of inner freedom, what has been holding me back from sharing more fully?
- When disaster has struck, such as tornados, fire, famine or flood, to what have I chosen to give? Why did I pick that situation over other causes? How have my choices fit with the values I hold as most important?
- When I choose to give to help others, do I tend more on the side of planning ahead and researching causes, or on the side of joyful abandon? Do I need to re-balance these two aspects of giving?
Saturday – Ever-Renewing Faith
Bible Reading: Romans 1:8-12
In Paul’s day it was usual for people to write a thank-you section in their personal letters, but Paul took it to new depths when he wrote to the congregations in his care. Even before meeting the Roman Christians in person, he heard how they held onto their faith, even when it caused them to be tried for treason. He thanked God for how their acts of witness inspired Christians throughout the Mediterranean world.
These days, most Christians don’t have to physically give their lives for their faith. But we all live in a web of widening communities, with connections to other congregations and/or ministries around the world. Even if we think we’re just focusing on local concerns, our actions reverberate, particularly through the Internet. Like Paul, we can establish global relationships with one another through deliberate prayer and intentional response.
A growing number of groups today practice the ”flat model” of mission (study book pp. 298f.). Instead of hearing about needs and giving money “up” through their denomination or a United Way-type of service, they interact more personally, straight across with the intended receiving community. Likewise, thousands of individuals are forming local “giving circles,” such as Lazarus Circles (book p. 256). In both forms of this direct practice, they strengthen one another by clarifying their decision-making process, in acting together, and extending the impact of their individual gifts.
In the Bible, Paul’s stewardship depended on relationships, even with those he would never personally meet. He sent a letter to the Roman Christians to say he was longing to see them, so they could share some spiritual gifts with each other, and be “mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.”
That’s the thing about faith: our trust in God through Jesus Christ – it is always a living thing, continually renewed as we reach out to one another in love.
I thank You, God, for the people who surround me to strengthen my trust in You, and for the opportunity to encourage them in their faith, as well. Guide me to see the opportunities to do so, in the name and the way of Jesus. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- How do I find out about situations in my wider community and decide what to do or give, and what not?
- Where do I find a source of hope and strength for my faith in God or Christ? Who are the people who help make that happen? How can I thank or repay them?
- In what ways do I strengthen other people’s trust in God. It is by sharing a word of hope and encouragement? Do I ever write letters to mission partners or others I haven’t met but for whom I pray?
- Using Augustine’s “wheel” analogy (book p. 289), where am I on the wheel at this moment, in relation to God, the hub? Who are the people closest to me on other spokes of the wheel? How can I draw closer to my companions in faith, as I seek to live closer to God?
Sunday – Faith at Work
Bible Reading: Luke 4:16-21
When Jesus went to his hometown synagogue, the leaders asked him to read and interpret a part of Scripture. After reading the first two verses of Isaiah Chapter 61, he identified its mission as being his own, and his work as being the fulfillment of that ancient prophecy. Now is the time for God’s fulfillment, Isaiah said. It’s time to give good news to those who are poor, to free those who are imprisoned in any way, and to help people who are spiritually blind to recover their sight.
Isaiah’s mission, Jesus’ mission, is our mission, as well.
Jesus’ characteristic way of teaching was not to exalt himself, but to help people see what was happening all around them. In the same way today, we can see our mission – our diakonia, or service – where people’s faith, or trust in God, is at work in the world.
Our study book sees examples of creative mission by members of Broadway Christian Parish in South Bend, Indiana and Christ United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City, Utah.It also highlights Davis Community Church in Davis, California and the Faith at Work Movement, both of which invite businesspeople and workers of different types to “gather in their communities to discuss questions of meaning, purpose, calling [and more] in the workplace” (book p. 280).
If Isaiah’s mission is Jesus’ mission is our mission, then this is a good opportunity for me to think about what my mission looks like in my particular time and place.
God of justice and mercy, please guide me to know and do the mission to which You have called me, by Your love and grace. This I pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Questions to Ponder:
- What specific individuals or groups come to mind when I read Jesus’ mission in the context of my life? How can I live with greater awareness of and response to them?
- Our book names unique ways that four ministries in the U.S. and Canada are fulfilling their mission. What is distinctive about my congregation’s participation in the wider community? What actions can I take to help us refine our unique opportunity for mission engagement?
- How might some interpersonal relationships such as giving circles or crowdfunding help me or people I know to connect more deeply and generously to others’ needs?
- Given the flat-mission approach and our ability to reach out through the Internet, in what ways can my congregation “act large” in the world?