We have arrived at the Week of Guided Prayer, a continuation of our daily journey through the 40 days of Lent as we approach the emotions of Holy Week and the joy of Easter.

The Week of Guided Prayer gives us the opportunity to let the Spirit work with us and in us as we read scripture and discover that the messages are relevant for us today.

Day 30: March 31

Rebellion

By J. Cameron

When I was reading the story of the people’s rebellion in building the tower of Babel, I was reminded of the origin story of the building where I worship. Our experience was quite different. It began with neighbours talking over the back fence about their congregations; both were renting space and looking for a permanent home that neither could afford. The spark of that initial conversation grew and eventually the two congregations met and selected an architect to help them design a shared building. The project was made especially interesting because my church’s partners, in what is now The Cedars Worship Centre, are Jewish.

There was no clear path forward because no such thing had been done in the United Church or in Canada. Our sensible solution looked like rebellion to some. Shared ownership of the building required new covenants and agreements. Questions were asked about the need for a new building. There was uneasiness among some in the Jewish community about whether a Christian church could be a trustworthy partner. We heard a few rumblings of hate that we knew existed in our city. Together, guided by God, we persisted.

People ask if I have had a lot of interaction and learning about the Jewish faith. This has not been my primary experience. Both congregations are busy with their own folks. I do, however, have a much deeper understanding of the roots of Christianity and Christian practice in the United Church. I have examined my own faith and its symbols and the things I say about Judaism and other faiths.

At some point we stopped building a building and recognized that we were helping to build an interfaith partnership: supportive, empathetic and trustworthy. To stand in the church’s pulpit is to face the front of the other sanctuary where, as in all Jewish temples, The Cedars has a lamp that is never extinguished. For me, it symbolizes God’s eternal presence shining on everyone.

After the confusion of Babel, we are invited to learn a new way to talk with our neighbours. Reaching out beyond what we know, might look rebellious even to our friends. But do venture out. God is here and there. Don’t be surprised if what you find is a deeper understanding of yourself, your church and your faith.

Credit

Week of Guided Prayer Network, Western Ontario Waterways Regional Council, The United Church of Canada, 2019.

Scripture
Genesis 11:1-9 … let us build ourselves a city
Exodus 32:1-7 … he took the gold and cast an image of a calf
Mark 12: 1-11 … the stone that the builders rejected
Mark 14:41-50 … have you come out with swords and clubs

For Reflection and Journaling
1. What learning happened when I reached out to encounter another?2. Where might God be guiding me to take a new path?

Meditative Prayer
We give thanks, O God, that you walk with us through times of rebellion, 
responding to our cries, guiding our way and creating miracles made of love. Amen.

Music Suggestion
“Sympathy for the Devil” – The Rolling Stones

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Day 29: March 30

Foundation

By H. Leffler

During Lent, our congregations engaged a different spiritual practice each week to help us grow in deeper relationship with God and each other. One week we were invited to reflect on a name for God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit that draws us closer to the Holy One. I was drawn to the name for God – Ground of Being. In those words, I found myself rooted in the assurance of God’s deep and abiding love, and forgiveness.

In naming God as “my rock and my fortress”, the Psalmist takes me to the beginning of time. Before there was anything there was God. God’s overflowing love is the foundation and starting point of all creation. Though life encompasses storms and struggles, the One who gives us life is always there supporting and protecting all people.

Again, and again God intercedes with the people of Israel and then Jesus comes into the world to assure us of God’s faithfulness. In faith, we build our lives on that foundation. I am grateful for the assurance that whatever choices I make in my life – whatever materials I add to the foundation that is Jesus – God will test them with a refiner’s fire. Where I have let God down or hurt another, those actions will be burned up. What I have built that has been loving and life giving to others will survive.

Over the years, my husband and I have collected rocks from Newfoundland to British Columbia, from Israel, Austria and Scotland. Our house is full of bowls and jars of rock … amethyst and granite, quartz, labradorite and sandstone. In my pocket, I keep a stone my 2 ½ year old grandson picked up for Grandma when we were out trick or treating and gave to me. Each stone reminds me of how firm my foundation is in God – the Ground of Being.

Credit

Week of Guided Prayer Network, Western Ontario Waterways Regional Council, The United Church of Canada, 2019.

Scripture
Psalm 71:1-6 … you are my rock and my fortress
Joshua 4:20-24 … what do these stones mean
Luke 6:46-49 … build your house on a rock
1 Corinthians 3:10-15 … that foundation is Jesus Christ

For Reflection and Journaling
1. What name of God grounds me in my faith?
2. How does the image of God as rock and foundation strengthen me?

Meditative Prayer
Ground of Being, you are my rock and redeemer.
I give thanks for the love and forgiveness
you offer me each day. Amen.

Music Suggestion
“Teach Your Children Well” – Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

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Day 28: March 28

Making Connections

By Dale Kucharczyk

Yesterday’s devotional closed with an invitation to discover ways in which the Spirit is with us today. Appreciation of creation and special moments in life are a couple of the ways the Spirit leads me. I wonder if the sun breaking through clouds catches your eye, or if the laughter of children makes your heart laugh, too. I wonder if someone has shown up exactly when you needed them, or if an interruption led to something amazing. I wonder if a scent has stirred up memories, or if something new came to your attention when you read something old and familiar. When this happens to me, I wonder if the “Spirit of truth” is trying to catch my attention by pointing me in a certain direction.

This wondering did not begin on its own. Islington United hosted its first Week of Guided Prayer 20 years ago. It was described as “a retreat guided by the Spirit in the midst of everyday life – a unique and meaningful opportunity for deepening your relationship with God.” Now I know that life is anything but “everyday” right now and that makes me want to seek out God even more. Perhaps you feel that way too.

The Week of Guided Prayer gives us the opportunity to let the Spirit work with us and in us as we read scripture and discover that the messages there are relevant for us today. Some people say that’s why the Bible is called the Living Word of God – it rings with truths that continue to give us life today.

By reading scriptures with the intention of connecting to God in some way, I have found that God is in all things and is with me in more ways than I could have ever imagined. I hope you will join me for the Week of Guided Prayer starting Monday, March 30, and discover it for yourself.

If you’re new to the Week of Guided Prayer, I have included information below on the two main spiritual practices that will help guide your prayer. I have also included a practical experience to give you an idea of how you might approach praying scripture in the coming week.

Dear God,
Gratitude rises up in me when I think that
You actually want to spend time with me. Help me make
space for us to be together. Amen.

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
Psalm 119:105

Day 27: March 27

Chapter 27: The Resurrection

By Dale Kucharczyk

I wonder if you have ever sat in the balcony of our sanctuary. It’s my favourite place to sit where I can look straight out at Jesus holding the bread with one hand and blessing us with the other. The stained glass window depicts the moment when his followers recognize that their guest is Jesus, resurrected – the moment just before He disappears.

I don’t know about you, but I have been feeling like those followers on the road to Emmaus – going over and over past and current events, trying to make sense of all that is happening in our world. I get overwhelmed with worry when I let my thoughts wander too far, so I try to focus on what I do know, like the ‘end’ of this story. I realized that the followers would never have recognized Jesus if they had not invited Him into their home –and into their hearts. So I am looking for the ways Jesus is showing up today, because He is.

When I reread the chapter, something touched my core on every page. I thought of the things that made me keep my faith locked up and hidden at times – unsure about how to articulate what I believed to be true. I remembered crossing the threshold of the garden of Gethsemane over a decade ago and being overwhelmed by ‘something’ that made me weep. All I could do was sit on a rock by a fig tree and pray – for me … for you … for those I knew and loved, and those I didn’t – yet. I wanted everyone to hear Jesus say their names with love and compassion and know that He promised, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”(The Story, p.388.)

I also remember that on the night of his arrest, Jesus promised that God would provide his disciples with “an advocate to help [them] and be with [them] forever – the Spirit of truth.” (The Story, p. 370.) It is that Spirit that continues to be with us today. I think that Spirit is what I felt at Gethsemane. That Spirit opens our eyes, ears, hearts and minds so that we can believe, doubt, question and believe again.

The next week of our Lenten devotional series will invite you to discover how that Spirit continues to be present in you and the world today.

My Lord and my God,
This is how Thomas addressed You so long ago once he understood You were still with him, with them. All-knowing One, Fill us with the desire to invite you into our lives. Stir in us a longing to discover more about Your Presence with us today, now. Fill us with Your Peace. Amen.

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Day 26: March 26

Chapter 26: The Hour of Darkness

By Ann Nguyen

Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (The Story, p. 380).

When I first read the verse “It is finished,” I thought Jesus died, defeated and exhausted. Crucifixion was a torturous execution method to ensure a slow and painful death that sometimes lasted for hours or even days. It is an understatement to say that Jesus died in humiliation and great pain.

At the time, this verse brought back a very painful memory that has been with me for the past 45 years. April 30th of 1975 was the darkest day for the Vietnamese community. That day the Communist North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces captured the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, forcing South Vietnam to surrender unconditionally. Saigon, once renown as the pearl of the Far East, became a living hell called Ho Chi Minh City. I still remember that day as if it were yesterday. My dad gathered everyone in the family room and kept saying: “It’s finished. We are all finished.” Then both of our parents cried like babies. Although I was a young child back then, I understood the seriousness of the situation and those words terrified me.

But then one day, I heard myself saying “It is finished” when being asked about a work deliverable. I was actually quite pleased and proud about my accomplishment when I said that. That night, I re-read the book of John and realized there could be more to Jesus’ words than I first thought. He did not say “I am finished.” From the cross, Jesus cried out as he took his last breath: “It is finished.”

When Jesus said those words, the curtain in the temple that surrounded the Ark of the Covenant was torn in two. This area made up the Holy of Holies and was only accessed by the High Priest once a year. The torn curtain symbolizes that we could now go directly to God with our prayers, with no need of protocol or priests. Jesus’ finishing work on the cross brought down the barrier between us and God.

Jesus’ final cry was one of victory.

Dear God, thank you for loving us unconditionally. Thank you for sending us Jesus to show us that endings can lead to new beginnings. Jesus demonstrated courage, dignity and humility in the face of brutality. May His example encourage and strengthen us when we face our own hours of darkness.

Thank you, God, for the gift of faith that reminds us … we are never alone because we live in Your world and we can trust in You. Amen.

“Dear Jesus, thank you for laying down your life so that I can lay down my heavy rock of burden.” (Islington United Church, Good Friday 2019)

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Day 25: March 25

Chapter 25: Jesus, Son of God

By Pattie Aitchison

“Who do you say I am?”

Jesus’s leadership is revealed in this segment of The Story. He asks his friends and followers to decide for themselves about his character and purpose. First he shows himself as the Radiant One on the Mount of Transfiguration; equal to Moses and Elijah the prophet. The dazzled disciples wanted to remain on the mountain top but Jesus had more to disclose about his leadership. He goes on to teach, heal the sick and the weak and even raises the dead by rescuing his friend Lazarus from the tomb. His authoritative words annoyed the religious leaders of the day and he spoke truth to those in power and yet he did not arrive in Jerusalem as a military leader but humbly entered on a donkey, a beast of burden.

Jesus spoke intimately about God, the Father, and portrayed the Almighty as a loving parent. Jesus’ words and actions decried the Pharisees and turned the tables to expose injustice and corruption. Beware of superficial religiosity! Beware of Power that subverts justice for its own ends!

Jesus’ radical style of leadership did not protect him from betrayal, trials and ultimate suffering but rather displayed the authenticity of God’s love made available to all, not just a few.

Jesus, the Son of God showed who He is….Radiant One, Healer, Teacher, Truth teller, Justice-seeker and ultimately Saviour!

Who do we claim as our Christ?

Jesus, Son of God, save us from the tyranny of our own egos and the weakness of vain leadership. Embolden us to speak truth to Power and lift up the weak and vulnerable ones. Help us to embrace our identity as children of the Living God. Amen. 

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Day 24: March 24

Chapter 24: No Ordinary Man

By Nora Sanders

One year my father had the honour of preaching on what was referred to as “Layman’s Sunday” – a day when a member of the congregation was asked to preach. I was away at university, unable to attend church that Sunday. It was before we had everything saved electronically, so I don’t actually know what he said. I do know the topic he chose was “The Parables”.

My father’s choice of topic was very much in keeping with the way he lived his faith. Jesus told parables – stories about situations that listeners would readily recognize from everyday life. These stories were not grand academic theories, they were guidance for living. I can’t recall my father ever discussing theological questions, but I saw him consistently applying the teachings of Jesus as he went about his life. So it doesn’t surprise me that on the one occasion when Dad took to the pulpit, he chose to talk about the Parables.

The puzzling thing really is that he chose to speak about all the Parables – instead of just one. Maybe it was too hard to choose just one, and this was Dad’s one shot at preaching. I have sometimes wondered how he managed to talk about them as a group. There is just so much material!

I feel that way about this chapter of The Story too. It covers not only the major Parables, but also the miracles that Jesus performed, the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, and pretty well all of the things Jesus taught by word and by action. This chapter is the story of Jesus’ ministry.

In some of the earlier chapters in The Story, I was tempted to skim quickly through the succession of kings and battles and construction projects. In this chapter, I wanted to linger, to hear again each of the stories that have been with me since childhood and that still come to mind in the midst of whatever is going on in my life.

In these stories of Jesus, we find the people of his time facing the same questions we struggle with today. Who is my neighbour? What does it mean to be truly generous? What does forgiveness look like? What does faith look like? Through these stories, we find Jesus providing answers – answers that continue to challenge us as we live today.

If we wanted to spend the entire Lenten period on just one chapter of The Story, my vote would be for it to be this one. Forty days wouldn’t actually be enough. Maybe a whole year. Maybe a whole lifetime …

Eternal God, we thank you for the ministry of Jesus, and for the many ways that the stories he told and the things he did show us how to be kind and generous and forgiving and faithful. Amen.

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Day 23: March 23

Chapter 23: Jesus' Ministry Begins

By Isla Grady

When I was a young child in Sunday School, I loved to sing the hymn “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus” (Voices United, p. 357).  The tune and lyrics called me into the great mystery of faith. The words made me wonder what it would have been like to be a witness to the public ministry of Jesus.

Fast forward to my preparation for confirmation. I see myself loading my fountain pen with precious turquoise blue ink to record each story of Jesus’ three-and-a-half year ministry, writing out the miracles of Jesus one by one because they felt so important. I wanted my writing to be perfect, to write these stories in an elevated way. Again, I was drawn into the wonder of the holy mystery in these stories.

For me, the stories have always held mystery. The events of the stories were accessible; they told of ordinary family and community scenes that we still see today. But there was nothing ordinary about being with Jesus.

The words in my childhood hymn kept calling, “tell me in accents of wonder.” My imagination enabled me to see the dramatic scene of Jesus’ baptism by his cousin John complete with parting skies, the voice of God, and the descending dove. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all visible in that moment. Jesus accepting His Call.

Then came 40 days in the wilderness praying and wrestling with the devil. It felt like Jesus retreated with God, alone, to discern a strategic plan to show the world a new way of living. He disregarded the devil’s temptation to find an easy way.

Jesus shows Himself as a man on the move with a strategic plan. He knows He can’t do it alone. He starts calling disciples — not the most learned or most handsome, but those who believed in God’s plan and in Jesus ministry. Those ready to answer the call, “Follow me.”

His first public miracle is as one who serves, and it occurs at a wedding in Cana with His mother and His disciples attending. He has a decision to make; He understands the need and responds by turning water into wine.

From there on that everything speeds up. From town to town, in private homes and public spaces, on seashores and hillsides — Jesus teaches and preaches, feeds and heals. Ordinary places become extraordinary opportunities for healing, elevating the unwanted or seemingly “left out” to do great things.

Jesus showed us a new way to create honour and love in families, to gather and support leaders, to create communities of love in action. The foundation of Jesus’ ministry was always calling on the power of God.

The beginning of Jesus’ ministry is a new chapter of our story. It is the beginning of the Christian story, and He showed us the Way. Hearing those stories is where my story of wonder began. I want to share that wonder with others so they say, “Tell me more.”

Loving and gracious God,

You have shown us the Way. Help us turn to You in wonder and thanksgiving, to be the agents of Your love in Your world. Amen.

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March 22

Chapter 22: The Birth of the King

By Dorothea Vickers

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered… Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.

We are so familiar with this story. The words, right from the beginning, invite us into an atmosphere of mystery and peace; we can almost see the decorations at church and hear the hymns. We are surrounded by traditions that bring us back to family and well-being. Ah, Christmas! The wonder of it all! And there is the babe lying in a manger. The angels are singing, the Messiah is here, glory, glory, and the shepherds are out of their minds with terror … Wait … What?

Let us think of the Christmas story in a new way. Yes – baby. Yes – peace on earth. Yes – glad tidings of comfort and joy. And yes – God is entering into time and space! God is coming to earth! With this unbelievable event, God is turning things upside down. God delights in miracles and paradoxes; think of Jesus’ sermon of the beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-12. Who would think that the Creator of everything would place Himself as a baby boy in the arms of a young woman? If we really let that sink in, wouldn’t it be just as strange, crazy even, as rain falling up or people walking on their heads? How can we possibly wrap our minds around that? Otherworldly beings appearing in the sky? Yes – awe inspiring and yes- terrifying.

Our nice, predictable, comfortable idea of Christmas, as we might see it now, was a big thing! Jesus came, God came, and nothing was ever the same again. All because of such indescribable love. Every year, as we celebrate the birth of our King, we mark this indwelling of God in our lives. Emmanuel – God with us.

After the shepherds had seen the baby, they left praising God. Glory to God in the Highest! In the highest and in the lowest, God is with us, now and always. Thanks be to God.

Almighty God, Creator, Holy One, and Christ-child. We are in awe of your miracles, of your presence in this world. You are too mysterious for us to comprehend but we are so thankful for your gracious, all-encompassing love. We worship you and sing your praises. Hallelujah and hosanna to the King! Amen

The Angel Gabriel Appearing to the Shepherds. Alfred Morgan (1836-1924).

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Day 22: March 21

Chapter 21: Rebuilding the Walls

By Reverend Adam Hanley

Today in The Story we read about Nehemiah leading God’s people to strengthen their home in Jerusalem. They asked Ezra to fetch a scroll containing the first five books of the Bible. As Ezra shared the words from the scroll, the priests helped explain the meaning of the texts. The former exiles discovered who they were in the story God was writing.

As they hear God’s word, the people cannot contain their joy. Ezra said, “This is a day of remembering who we are and who God is. Because this day is holy to God, and the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Nehemiah’s account ends with the people celebrating and sharing gifts of food and wine, because their sacred memories were alive again. They knew that they could face the hard work that lay ahead assured of God’s presence, love, guidance, and strength.

This is one of the best parts about these last prophets of the Old Testament. Nehemiah and Malachi both tell the people to be faithful and party:

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength” (The Story, p. 300-1; Nehemiah 8:10).

Malachi said, “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves.” (The Story, p. 304; Malachi 4:2)

These prophets remind us of the need to celebrate with God. A God who keeps promises. A God who shares grace.

I wonder, how do you follow in the way of these prophets and celebrate the joy of God? How do you “celebrate God’s Presence” as we are called to do by the words of “A New Creed” (Voices United, 918)?

Holy One, You called prophets like Ezra and Nehemiah to summon the people back to you with joy and celebration. We give thanks for the joy that continues to rise up when we follow you today. Help us recognize and celebrate your presence in all of our stories. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.

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Day 21: March 20

Chapter 20: The Queen of Beauty and Courage (Esther)

By Catherine Manning

There are different ways of standing up for ourselves and for others. In the story of Queen Esther, we meet her predecessor, Queen Vashti, who refused to come before the King when asked. She was in a position of power, having been rightfully crowned Queen. She acted from a place of personal power, refusing to comply with the expectations of the day that she submit to his authority over her. In this way, she was a leader and an inspiring example for women; and she paid for this by losing her position of status and power at court and never being allowed into the king’s presence again. This is a worthy path.

Esther, by way of contrast, had to manage her power differently. In the end, it was effective and had great impact on the survival of the entire Jewish population at the time. Her approach to the exercise of power was different, given that she was forcibly taken into service for her beauty. She was aware that her identity as a Jew must remain hidden. The vulnerability of those she loved meant that Esther played the part handed to her. Esther was able to evolve into her true power, given time and circumstance – a power which emerged out of defense of the defenseless. She risked, but did so from a place of earned trust, where one can help minds and hearts to change. She had over time engendered the trust of the King, which essentially allowed her to influence his opinion. This saved her people.

It is important to recognize the bold acts of conscience and defiance that bring about change. It is also important to recognize the subtle and nuanced ways through which people exercise courage – people from the margins, people who must remain quiet, people who act in patient subversion – and in so doing, make situations right that once were wrong.

There are many ways to advance change, and many ways to live into one’s power. We need each and every way – sometimes it is personal, sometimes it is systemic. Always, if it is rooted in Love – the Ground that feeds the Justice Tree – it is Good.

Creative Spirit
Grow in us, evolve with us
Help us to listen to the voice
The voice that knows our power
That calls us outside of our zones of comfort
When the time is right
To rise, to speak
To come alongside
To flourish
With and through your emerging Grace and Love
Amen

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Day 20: March 19

Chapter 19: The Return Home

By Reverend Roger Landell

Time to Rebuild: Haggai

Rebuilds are never easy; just ask the Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey team! The chief Leaf architects of that rebuild are promising a Stanley Cup with an 8 year time line starting with a 50 million dollar coach and 40 million dollar a year 4 player deal. Throughout the rebuild, the “higher powers” message remains the same … ‘Stay our course. Don’t get discouraged. Trust us. You’re not alone. Don’t be afraid; you will be blessed.’

Sounds a little like the rebuild and promises called for by God through Haggai:

“In the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month … the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai…the time has come to rebuild (the temple … and again in the seventh month … I am with you … take courage … take courage … take courage … for I am with you … according to the promise [God] made you when you came out of Egypt … my spirit abides among you, do not fear … and in the ninth month the word of the Lord came again through Haggai … From this day on I will bless you” (The Story, p. 264-66).

… and sure enough, God was with them. Solomon’s temple that had been destroyed decades earlier was rebuilt and rededicated to God. The people of the Israel were allowed to return to Jerusalem to do this “according to the command of God and the decrees of Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes, the kings of Persia” (The Story, p. 272-3). The gold and silver articles that had been taken to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar were also returned to their rightful places in the temple in Jerusalem. 

As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, in those days God spoke … by the prophets, but in these last days [God] has spoken by a Son (Hebrews 1:1, 2). And the Son’s message remains the same for us today:

Take courage. Do not be afraid, I am with you. My spirit abides among you and lives in you! From this day on I will bless you that you may be a big time blessing!” (Jesus’ message paraphrased)

Thank you, God, for all the ways you bless us. Keep us mindful of your spirit that lives within us so that we can trust that your promises are true. Amen

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Day 19: March 18

Chapter 18: Daniel in Exile

By Nora Sanders

In my Sunday School days, I loved the story of Daniel in the lion’s den. I think that was because of the picture that we were given with it, a picture of Daniel alongside some large, beautiful, calm looking lions. I loved animals as a child, and I still do.

Thinking of the story now, I still have the lovely picture in my mind, but I am a little more aware of how terrifying it would be to be placed in a den of lions, likely hungry lions. Especially when this was a fairly standard means of executing criminals in those days. Reading the story through adult eyes, I am powerfully aware of the mystery and miracle of Daniel being saved through his faith.

I don’t remember the fiery furnace image as well from my childhood encounter with the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – possibly because there were no animals involved – but now, as a an adult who sometimes fires a pottery kiln, I have a pretty good sense of what intense heat is like. Scary hot. Death by burning was another gruesome means of execution, and the faith that enabled those three friends of Daniel to survive such treatment unscathed was powerful indeed.

These young men were the best and the brightest of the tribe of Judah living in exile in Babylon. They had been hand picked to be trained for service of the king, and they served well. They served the kings – Nebuchadnezzar and Darius – but they would not worship them.

These men were all victims of religious persecution. The law they broke was one that said that they must worship the King as their god. Their faith was in the one we know as God, and by holding true to their faith, they were saved.

I wish we could look back on these images of religious persecution, and people being persecuted for fighting for justice, as something now consigned to history. Sadly, these things have continued in various forms through the centuries, and still blight our world today.

Displacement, migration, exile: these are realities for many in our world today. Some of those people are our neighbours here in Canada. Some are stuck for years in temporary locations. Some have been made to feel welcome in new places, and others feel the isolation of outsiders. Some have had to leave their homelands because of religious persecution. Some face religious persecution in their new homes.

I have always lived in a country where my religion is welcome, and my right to practice my religion is recognized. Do I truly recognize how much I take for granted? How strong would my faith be if practising my religion put me at physical or legal risk? Do I have the courage to stand up for what is right, even in the face of danger?

I know I cannot fully answer these questions, but I can find the humility to ask them. And to pray about the answers.

Steadfast God, I want to turn to you when I am afraid, and when I am alone. Guide me to reach out to others in their times of need, and to have faith that you are with us, always. Amen

Peter Paul Ruben. Daniel in the Lion’s Den. 1614-1616.

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Day 18: March 17

Chapter 17: The Kingdom's Fall

By Clive Anderson

This chapter details the gradual disintegration of the Hebrew nation through the selfish and corrupt behaviour of the kings who led the people to forget their dependence on Yahweh, the Hebrew name for God. The people forgot how, under the leadership of Moses, God had provided for them during the years of wandering in the wilderness. Consequently the people worshiped idols and followed pagan practices in disobedience to God’s commandments.

As we read of this tragic situation and the eventual destruction of temple and people, it would be easy for us to be critical. Could they not understand that God is a jealous God and would not tolerate thoughts or actions that led them away from God?

The prophet Jeremiah was given the task of preaching God’s message of repentance and urging the return to living a life that honours and obeys God. Over a period of 40 years from 625 BCE to 586 BCE Jeremiah proclaimed the severe message that God would not be patient forever.

What does this message say to us during this period of Lent? Do we have the humility to look at our own lives to see where our commitment and obedience to God is half-hearted? Can we recognize and be grateful for the support of our community and the God-centred teaching that gives us strength to turn away from the potential idols within our reach and the grace to help us refocus when we slip?

The last messages from Jeremiah were harsh and frightening, warnings of the approaching destruction: This is what the LORD says: See, I am setting before you the way of Life and the way of Death. (The Story, p. 242). There was hope but it would come at a cost. The Babylonians destroyed the temple and set fire to Jerusalem and whoever surrendered was captured and transported into exile.

Jeremiah lamented over the fall of his home and people but remembering God’s faithfulness in the past restored a glimmer of hope:

Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
(The Story, p. 244)

Remember, LORD, what has happened to us;
look and see our disgrace.
…Restore us to yourself, LORD, that we may return;
renew our days as of old. (The Story, p. 245)

May the Grace of God and the Companionship of the Holy Spirit dwell in us this day and forever more. Amen

Clive writes: This picture of our cat Pumpkin conveys calm and a freedom from fear. She is satisfied with her circumstances – soaking in the warm sun and blissfully unaware sitting atop a BBQ, which would be terrifying if ignited! Perhaps her pose is like the sixth century Hebrews prior to the arrival of the Babylonian Armies!

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Day 17: March 16

Chapter 16: The Beginning of the End of the Kingdom of Israel

By Ester Khubyar

One of my Bible heroes is King Hezekiah. He is one of the few faithful kings of Judah who “did what was good in the eyes of the Lord” (The Story, p. 220). After conquering the lands of the ten tribes of Israel, the war machine of the Assyrian army confronted these remaining two tribes of Judah. The Assyrian supreme commander used many tactics to persuade King Hezekiah to surrender without a fight: taunting, bribery and intimidation. The commander even used mockery, by speaking in the Hebrew language, to cast doubt in the minds and hearts of the people of Judah: “Do not let Hezekiah deceive you. He cannot deliver you from my hand. Do not let Hezekiah persuade you to trust in the Lord” (The Story, p. 222).

King Hezekiah knew what a fierce enemy his country was facing. But, rather than surrender, he appealed to God and prayed: “It is true that the Assyrian kings have laid waste these nations and their lands…Now, Lord our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone, Lord, are God.” (The Story, p. 223).

As I write these words, Lauren Daigle’s song, Rescue, keeps playing in my head. I invite you to listen to it as you read this devotional.

Could this song reverberate back over time as an anthem for King Hezekiah and his people? Daigle writes: “I will send out an army to find you in the middle of the darkest night. It’s true, I will rescue you…You’re not defenseless. I’ll be your shelter. I’ll be your armor.” (Rescue). God answered King Hezekiah’s prayer with this promise: “I am the Lord; those who hope in me will not be disappointed. Then all mankind will know that I, the Lord, am your Saviour, your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob” (The Story, p. 228). At this time, Judah was miraculously rescued, though years later they were exiled into Babylon for 70 years.

Chapter 16 of The Story ends with a moving prophetic passage from the Book of Isaiah, describing the coming Messiah Jesus’ trial, suffering, and death. Is this a portrait of defeat? In no way! He is alive! On Easter Sunday morning, the tomb is empty, echoing the chorus, “I will rescue you.”

Dear Jesus: Throughout this Lenten season, we commune with You. On Palm Sunday, we follow after You. On Maundy Thursday, we share Your meal of bread and wine. On Good Friday, we mourn for You at the cross. We wait in our grief as we hold You in our hearts. On Easter Sunday, we celebrate with exceeding joy our King and we sing everlasting praises to our Saviour and Lord. Amen

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March 15

Psalm 10. When God Is Silent

By Ann Woomert

Psalm 10 opens with these questions:
“Why are you so far way, O Lord?
Why do you hide yourself when we are in trouble?”

After reading this, I immediately recalled an anthem the choir sang not long ago, I Believe, by Mark Miller.

In the moving text of this song, the songwriter shares a remarkably enduring faith despite horrific circumstances. Because the words struck me so deeply, I decided to learn more about the text. I discovered that while the origin of these words is sometimes debated, most researchers attribute them to the findings on a cellar wall in Cologne where Jews had been hiding. Other reports say they were discovered in a Cologne prison cell, found in Auschwitz, or in a Warsaw ghetto. I noted that all reports, however, consider the words to be authentic:

I believe in the sun,
even when it’s not shining.

I believe in love
even when I don’t feel it.

I believe in God
even when God is silent.

To fully understand the message of the author, one certainly needs to consider the text in its entirety. It was the singular line, however, “I believe in God, even when God is silent” that caught my attention and caused me to reflect more deeply.

How inspiring these words are, coming from a person in a life situation unimaginable to us; yet faith remains. In our own lives, there are personal challenges, current events, or world issues to which some would respond by saying God is silent or even nonexistent. They may abandon faith, closing themselves to seeing and feeling God’s presence. May this I Believe text from 1945 inspire us to not lose hope and to remain open to seeing God during our own times of discouragement or despair.

Silently now I wait for thee; ready, my God, thy will to see.
Open my eyes, open my ears, open my heart,
Illumine me, Spirit divine. Amen

Voices United, p. 371, Open My Eyes, That I May See

Music lyrics reprinted under OneLicense #A-722907

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Day 16: March 14

Chapter 15. God's Messengers

By Adam Hanley

This chapter of The Story brings us to prophets like Elijah, Elisha, Amos and Hosea. As we read The Story we can think of prophets as God’s spokespeople; messengers of God.

The first two prophets, Elijah and Elisha, are faithful men who reminded the people of the Northern Kingdom that God is better than Baal. Not only did they model faithfulness to God in their work, but they also modeled a way of living together in faith. Elijah and Elisha are a model of mentorship. Elijah helped Elisha learn how to be a prophet. Elisha acquired healing powers from Elijah. Elijah showed his young apprentice how to follow God in a hostile territory.

As we live our lives as disciples of Christ, mentoring is important. A few years ago, I attended a gathering at Five Oaks Education and Retreat Centre about mentorship. As we talked about mentorship, we had time to wonder who our mentors were. Sometimes we have people in our lives who are mentors, but they may never know. At the end of the gathering, we were invited to send a note to one or two of our mentors to let them know of their effect on our lives and offer gratitude. Writing to two clergy who have been my mentors was a sacred exercise.

Today, I wonder – who are your mentors? If they are still alive, are they aware of their special mentoring effect on your life?  Would you like to tell them this soon?

Holy One, who spoke to Elijah in the still small voice, we offer thanks for the mentors in our lives. For the people who taught us and were models for us. For the ones who shared their faith with us and helped us learn how to follow in your way. In Jesus name we pray. Amen

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Day 15: March 13

Chapter 14. The Kingdom Torn

Leaving our Comfort Zones

By Rev. Young Rhee

As I approached retirement, I began to wonder how I might spend the comfort of this new stage of my life. I set off on a pilgrimage in Spain known as the Camino de Santiago, a challenging 800 km long, carrying only a backpack of basic items. I would have plenty of time to think about stepping into the next stage of my life journey as I walked 25-30 km every day, in sun, rain or storm. Soon I got blisters on my feet and toes, and I suffered from toothaches. But I kept walking because my spiritual joy was much bigger than my physical discomfort.

Sleeping in hostels with strangers, using communal showers and unisex washrooms, hand-washing the clothes I wore and drying them overnight … my body got exhausted, but I felt an inner joy I’d never tasted in my comfortable life at home. I walked up and down steep hills and mountains, alongside creeks, and through forests, fields, and vineyards. Walking in nature was an amazing blessing because it provided intimate time with God. Frequently I sensed God’s presence in me and around me; I talked with God as if God was right there walking beside me. Every day I offered God my spiritual worship, and out of God’s fullness I received an abundance of grace.

My journey was cut short when I suffered a heart attack on the 24th day of my pilgrimage. But I remain grateful for the 23 days I spent walking with God along the Camino.

Chapter 14 of The Story tells how Israel became a divided kingdom. God chose Jeroboam to be king of Israel, but Solomon’s son Rehoboam was appointed king by his own tribe of Judah. Rehoboam’s heavy taxes led to complaints from the people of Israel, but he refused to lighten their load and so the country was split in two. He was left to rule the smaller kingdom of Judah, while Jeroboam became king of Israel, the larger, northern kingdom with ten tribes.

The temple was in Jerusalem, which was part of Rehoboam’s kingdom. Jeroboam was afraid that the hearts of his people might turn to King Rehoboam if they went to Jerusalem to worship there. So he came up with a plan to keep them in the north. He made two golden calves, which he set in shrines at opposite ends of the nation. He reminded the people how comfortable it would be to worship closer to home instead of walking all the way to Jerusalem. The Israelites agreed, and offered their sacrifices on the altars before the golden calves.

Because the king and people chose comfort over following God’s word, the relationship God had so wanted to continue with them was broken.
Eventually the Israelites were defeated and became captives that were scattered all over the Assyrian Empire.

We live in a world where comfort is sought after and revered. We value comfort in all parts of our lives – we relax in comfy clothes in comfy chairs as we eat comfort foods. We can even watch worship on a screen from the comfort of our homes where we need not connect too closely with others or with God.

If we allow too much comfort to creep into our worshiping sphere, we might turn away from God as the people turned away from God in the sad history of Israel. Let us remember what Jesus said: “Make every effort to enter through the narrow gate (Luke 13:24).” To help us enter through that narrow gate, we are asked to come out of our comfort zones so we can experience a closer relationship with God.

O gracious God, help us to make every effort to come near to You. Empower us to come out of our comfort to experience your glorious presence. In Jesus’ name, Amen

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Day 14: March 12

Chapter 13. The King Who Had It All

By Kelly Willis Green

I love King Solomon, also know as “The King Who Had It All.” Okay, he wasn’t perfect (who is?) but he is something of a role model for me in how he lived much of his life, in his faithfulness and his legacy. He really did have it all – for a time.

The very title of this chapter is interesting when viewed through the lens of today’s societal values. What does it mean to “have it all”? A fabulous career, a great family, a happy healthy life, a million followers, abs of steel…? I wonder how many of us would put “wisdom” first on our list. King Solomon did.

When God appeared to him and told him he could have anything he wanted, Solomon asked only for wisdom and discernment, which would help him govern the people of Israel well. God granted Solomon great wisdom, and, ironically perhaps, also gave him a powerful and prosperous reign, untold wealth and honour.

I have been thinking a lot about wisdom in preparation for this devotional and what it really means. Knowledge is a component, but it strikes me that one can’t have wisdom without spiritual and emotional maturity. And there is a certain check of the self, of ego, that is needed. I also see wisdom as a verb, it’s put into action, it’s shared. All of these qualities point us to God and a humbling of ourselves. Solomon knew that the way that he sought was through God.

I fail every day to live consistently by wisdom and understanding. But I know that I am closer to it when I spend time on my relationship with God. I also have a teacher in Solomon – whose beautiful, insightful and instructive writings in Proverbs provide inspiration and comfort, as well as a guide – and sometimes a check – on my own behaviour.
This Lenten season I am trying an experiment. In my daily prayer, I am asking God to help me love wisdom and to turn my heart and my focus to seeking wisdom above all else. I am open and without expectation. But perhaps this verse from Proverbs 19:8 can serve as inspiration: The one who gets wisdom loves life; the one who cherishes understanding will soon prosper.

Loving God, please help me to love and seek wisdom and discernment. Help me to listen and follow your wise instructions. And help me to act in ways that follow you, not the ways of the world. Amen

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Day 13: March 11

Chapter 12. The Trials of a King

By Reverend Mark Aitchison

Your Story and My Story are all caught up in God’s Story.  How encouraging it is to know that we are always within reach of God’s understanding, grace and love.

David’s Story is of one who loved God dearly, and at the same time was a terrible sinner. He has a humble beginning; eighth son in a family of brothers who didn’t take him seriously; a shepherd boy who composed songs to the Lord. When his life takes a sudden turn by killing the Philistine giant Goliath, David becomes a military leader who leads his people to victory. But Saul, the king, in jealousy, begins to fear and hate him. David in fear hides out for years in the wilderness. 

When Saul is killed, David is exalted as king. He begins as a righteous ruler, but power and wealth take their toll on his moral compass. In the middle of his successful career he commits adultery with Bathsheba and tries to cover his sin by having her husband Uriah killed in battle. When confronted by the prophet Nathan, David admits to his sin and writes a prayer for pardon:

“1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”
(Psalm 51:1-2 NIV)

David asks God for a full pardon — and cleansing of his character — based on God’s merciful nature. It is a bold and very hopeful prayer prayed by a desperately wounded sinner longing to be restored to his God.

Being separated from God by sin brings pain in one’s spirit, a sense of guilt and estrangement. God doesn’t desire us to live with guilt, but to enjoy forgiveness and full friendship with our Maker.

Have you lost the “joy” of your salvation? Have you become somewhat distant from God? Have you taken God for granted? God wants to restore the joy to you that is your birthright as a Christian. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in your life (Galatians 5:22-23). Call out to God in repentance and receive the joy God desires for you. I have prayed this prayer often and in grace God has responded.

Create in me a pure heart, O God, renew a steadfast spirit within me, and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen

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Day 12: March 10

Chapter 11. From Shepherd to King

By Isaac Haskin

The story of David, the shepherd boy who becomes a king, is very interesting because it talks about the same kinds of concerns young people still face today.

David is the youngest in his family. Because he is the youngest, they are mean to him and don’t think he can do very much. On the battlefield the king, Saul, also thinks that David is too young, and that a shepherd doesn’t have the ability to take on Goliath: “You are only a young man … he has been a warrior from his youth.”(The Story, p.148) I, too, am the youngest in my family, and I feel that it is hard to prove myself to others, just like David.

David is passionate about what he does; he enjoys doing it, and he’s good at it, too: “When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth.”(The Story, p. 148) Most important, David knows that God will protect him always. He bravely faces and defeats Goliath (only after no one else will take on the job) because he has faith that God is on his side. I am enthusiastic about what I want to do with my life and how to get there. I know it will take a lot of work but like David, I am capable. I just need the opportunity to prove myself. I know that with God’s help I can succeed. I can’t do it alone. After David defeats Goliath it is an uphill battle with Saul to become the leader that God has chosen David to be. And in Chapter 12 we find out that David is not perfect.

David is an inspiration to young people. He struggles, and he has faults, but because of his faith in God he ultimately succeeds. We struggle. We make mistakes. But with God’s help we can find the right path.

Loving God:
We give thanks that we are all created with unique and special gifts.
Help us to discern our God-given gifts to join in community to create Your kingdom of love and inclusion on earth.
Amen

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Day 11: March 9

Chapter 10. Standing Tall, Falling Hard

By Lynn Morrison

Hannah and Saul are two people that stood out for me in this chapter. Hannah could stand tall and hold her head up because she kept the vow she made to the Lord Almighty. Saul, on the other hand was physically tall, but he had a hard time following through with the commands God made of him. Consequently, he falls hard.

The chapter opens with the story of Hannah, one of the two wives of a man called Elkanah. Hannah had been unable to conceive a child and her husband’s other wife mocked and provoked her until she wept. I understand her pain because I, too, know what it’s like to be infertile. In her deep anguish she prayed to the Lord promising that if she were to have a son she would dedicate him to the Lord, to serve God all the days of his life. She does bear a son and keeps her vow. Her son, Samuel, is raised by Eli in the temple and learns to listen for God’s voice and follow God’s commands from the time he was a child. Samuel grew to become a great leader; the people, however, wanted something more.

God’s ideal plan for Israel does not include a king; God is to have been Israel’s only king. But the Israelites wanted to have a king like the other nations. Samuel tries to dissuade them by warning them of what a reigning king will claim as his rights. Samuel’s words fall on deaf ears and tall, handsome Saul becomes king somewhat reluctantly. It is a joyous time for the people until Saul decides he wants to have full control. Saul has plans for his future that will compete with God. Saul stops listening to Samuel’s stern warnings and stops leaning on God. This leads to his fall.

I can imagine God being sad and disappointed that Saul did not listen. Saul seemed to think his impulsive plans were better than God’s and eventually his kingdom did not endure. Samuel was preparing to find and anoint a man after God’s own heart who was waiting in the wings to bring the people back to God.

Gracious God, Thank you for all the ways you reach into our lives. Open our hearts to you so that we can carry you within us wherever we go. Show us how to help your kingdom come today. Amen

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March 8

Psalm 121 and James 5:13-14.
The Power of Prayer

By Dale Pringle

Okay, I confess. I’ve never been much of a believer in the power of prayer. I have prayed for many things over the years – a new bicycle, a passing grade, a happier marriage. I prayed hard, too, with eyes closed, head bowed and palms together under my chin. But the prayers went unanswered. Either I was doing it wrong, or God just wasn’t listening. Maybe God couldn’t be bothered with me, I reasoned. Maybe God had bigger problems to address. But lately, friends, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve got new lungs, you see. And that has been a total game-changer for me.

I have a disease called pulmonary fibrosis. It’s a progressive scarring of the lungs, and its cause is unknown. My condition steadily worsened until, even with supplemental oxygen, the slightest effort left me gasping for air.

We prayed I’d be placed on the transplant list, and on October 11, 2019, my prayer was answered. Others were invited to join us and on November 15, 2019, when the surgery happened, there was a grand chorus of prayer from congregations at four churches. My Islington United Church faith family led the charge with emails and cards and gifts, and, of course, healing prayer. My recovery so far has been swift, although my diminished immune system has forced me to sequester myself temporarily in order to avoid the germs that would attack my new lungs. A setback had me return to the hospital for a few days but I was sustained by prayer through that as well.

We never really know how or when our prayers will get answered but I do know prayer reminds me that God is with me no matter what.

A double lung transplant is nothing short of a miracle. In fact, miracles abound in my story. And I credit it all to prayer.

You prayed for me, friends. And I was healed. God heard our supplications and answered. I am well. I can breathe. And what a wonderfully sweet sensation it is to fill my lungs with air.

Glory to God! And thank you for praying for me. Thank you for restoring my belief in the power of prayer. Prayer works even when outcomes are uncertain. Prayer is powerful medicine.

Heavenly Father,
Teach me to pray, for I can do nothing without You.
Remind me to pray, for everything I have I owe to You.
Give me the courage to ask You for help when I think I can do it alone.
Show me Your Love in the faces of friends and family.
Help me to see the value of community with Your people, Lord.
Remind me to pray the prayer of Your son, Jesus who taught us to pray

“Our Father, who art in Heaven …”
Amen

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Day 10: March 7

Chapter 9. The Faith of a Foreign Woman (Ruth)

The Faith of a Confirmation Pair: By Ivy Corbalan and Michelle Allen

Ivy writes: 

In the story of Ruth, a famine in Judah causes a family to move from Bethlehem to the foreign country of Moab. The sons grow up and marry Moabite women. Unfortunately, the father and two sons die leaving Naomi, the wife, alone with her two daughters-in-law. Naomi decides to return to her family in Bethlehem and tells the daughters-in-law to return home to their families to start a new life. One of them, named Ruth, refuses to leave Naomi.

Ruth tells Naomi, “Where you go I will go … Your people will be my people and your God will be my God.”(The Story, p, 122). Ruth does not leave Naomi’s side even through hard times. Ruth’s promise to look after and care for Naomi also shows her commitment and trust in God with her decision. Ruth does not abandon Naomi; she goes to Bethlehem to be with Naomi when she saw that Naomi had no one left. Ruth put aside her life and her family back home to take care of Naomi. Her dedication to Naomi was a way to show love for her dead husband and to help heal the pain they both felt as they grieved.

Ruth’s words speak to me as a Christian because her story is an example of loving and serving others unconditionally. Ruth puts her love into action by following and listening to Naomi along the way. Her active love does not go unnoticed. Naomi knew that when she got older, she wouldn’t be able to care for Ruth the same way Ruth had cared for her, so she instructs Ruth about how to seek the care and protection of a relative, Boaz. Ruth follows Naomi’s advice and eventually becomes his wife.

As Christians, Ruth’s story reminds us to hope and trust in God to guide us through life’s journeys. Sometimes trust leads us to making certain sacrifices in our lives but then we may discover that in the giving up, we are also receiving.

Michelle writes:

The first time I looked at my newborn twins I was filled with overwhelming love and a deep sense of obligation. Here were these perfect little lives, entrusted to me. Wherever I went, they would go. My people would be their people. My God would be their God. What a gift, but also what an incredible responsibility. From that moment on I would be their biggest influencer. I would help them develop a love for music, or math or magic. They would observe what I made a priority and what I did not. Relationships, screen time, a second helping of dessert; they would learn by watching my example. I would teach them to say thank you and I’m sorry by first saying it myself.

But do I put the same trust in God that Ruth put in Naomi or that my kids put in me? Do I look first to God’s word for guidance? Do I speak to God in prayer and listen to God through mindful meditation? Do I feel God’s love overflowing inside me? And is that love enough?

Parenthood has taught me many things but perhaps the most profound, or at least the most unexpected, is the importance of acknowledging that I can’t always do it “right.” I don’t have all the answers. I don’t always set a good example. I don’t always say the right thing at the right time. I’m not a perfect mom, wife, friend or Christian. But I can commit, every day, to take one more step along the path that God has laid out in front of me. I can choose to trust that my life is unfolding the way that it is meant to and that wherever I am led, I will not walk alone.

Loving God, Thank you for all the ways your love is revealed in the world and our lives. Thank you for the people who show us what trusting in You looks like, who reminds us that You love us always in all ways. Amen

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Day 9: March 6

Chapter 8. A Few Good Men . . . and Women

By Lynne Bullock

This chapter describes what happened to the Israelite people after Joshua died. It also points out the importance of strong, spiritual leadership. Once again the Israelites fell into their old ways and began to worship the false gods of the people around them. It seems winning battles was easier than being faithful to God and the question is asked, “Will God’s people ever learn?”

I ask myself that same question today. Why is staying faithful to God so difficult when evidence of God’s faithfulness is constantly before us? What pulls us away from God? What causes us to be lethargic in our faith? Why do the things of the world tempt us more than being faithful?

If we can learn anything from Deborah, a prophet and the only woman judge who ruled successfully for 40 years, it would be she knew how to listen to God so she could make righteous decisions. In our busy, noisy world, our conversations with God are often one-sided or non-existent. We seldom take time to hear God’s “still small voice.” It seems much easier to tell God what we want rather than listening to hear what God wants.

Deborah also knew the importance of praising and worshipping God. When God gave her victory in battle, she then directed attention and praise back to God. She didn’t take any glory for herself. She had an “attitude of gratitude” and thanked God for what had been done. She knew in her heart that God inhabits the praises of the people.

Deborah’s relationship with God affected those around her. Likewise if we exhibit trust in God’s ability to help us, others may be encouraged to follow our example and come to know God themselves.

Henry Nouwen says the first step to being faithful is to remember what God has done for us in the past. We seem to have short memories just like the Israelites and we forget too quickly what God has already done for us in our lives, our churches and our world. When we focus on what God has already accomplished, it gives us faith to believe that God will be with us in our present situation.

Perhaps like Deborah, if we learned to listen for God’s voice, thanked God openly and quickly for what has been given to us and remembered the good things God has already done, we would have such a solid relationship with God that temptation, lethargy and unfaithfulness would not be a problem.

Gracious God, help us to turn to you for all that we need. Help us to seek your will in all things and help us to be an influence for good in this troubled world. Let our thankfulness be contagious to those around us. We give you the honour, praise and glory for answered prayer. Amen

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Day 8: March 5

Chapter 7. The Battle Begins

By James Aitchison

The Courage of Faith

This chapter raises some powerful (even if obvious) connections between Joshua and Moses, as Joshua steps into the leadership void created by Moses’ death. God calls Joshua to continue Moses’ work by leading the Israelites to the Promised Land thereby realizing the promise God made to Abraham so long before. When Joshua reaches the banks of the Jordan River, the waters miraculously part allowing the Israelites safe passage, much like the Red Sea did for Moses and the Hebrews a generation before.

Joshua’s courage and willingness to step into leadership are what most resonate with me. I am left with the sense that it isn’t an easy job, but someone has to do it. I imagine this was Joshua’s experience; he simply felt God’s call and he stepped up.

This chapter also moves me to consider how we sometimes have to do a lot of slow, patient work before we see results. The Israelites had a long time to reflect while they were in exile; they had to figure out who they were and what they were about. Eventually, they come to power in their promised land but a long and slow process led up to it.

Similarly, in the taking of Jericho, patience prevailed. God instructed Joshua to march his small army around the city walls once a day for six days. After the seventh march on the seventh day, the blasting of horns and shouting of men brought the walls down. If we can find our way through some of the problematic imagery of God seeming to support war, we might find an analogy here to inspire and encourage us to conquer our own inner enemies.

In what ways might we patiently walk around the walls of our own enemies (most likely within us), and how might we call out, or blow our horns to see the walls come down?

Years after the wars, when the land had been held in peace by the Israelites for some time, Joshua (now an old man) gathers together the leaders of the tribes and reminds them of all God has done. Knowing he is soon to die, he looks back at how God paved their way and reminds them to be faithful and focused, not honouring any other gods. Also mirroring Moses, Joshua uses a large stone to remind the people to follow the laws of God.

God, I pray today that I can make space for your voice in my heart, and that you will reveal in me the courage to follow your path for my life. Help me to remain faithful and focused as the world hurls distractions toward me. Equip me to move through any obstacle I encounter. This I pray for the sake of your truth, through Christ’s love. Amen

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Day 7: March 4

Chapter 6. Wandering

By David Lang

Wandering or Wondering?

In our instantaneous world, where we grow anxious when we do not receive a quick response to a text message, grow frustrated when a lineup delays us by minutes, and abandon a website that takes seconds to load, it is hard to image how the Israelites felt wandering in the hot, dry desert in search of the Promised Land for 40 years! Wandering for such a long time would severely challenge anyone – wandering for even a brief time challenges me.

As a person who has spent most of his adult life racing through time-sensitive, multi-page to-do lists, the prospect of not having enough to do – wandering  terrifies me. For me, wandering implies being lost, aimless, unproductive  lacking in purpose and meaning, expendable. And as I enter semi-retirement this is exactly what I dread. What will I do with the over-abundance of unstructured time in my so-called “golden years”?

But as I sat at my desk for the first time contemplating a to-do list that could comfortably fit on a sticky note, it dawned on me what an amazing opportunity lay before me. If I only quieted myself, got centered and listened to my heart, wouldn’t God provide the guidance I needed for this new chapter in my life? After all, hadn’t God always been there throughout my life nudging me this way or that? Hadn’t God been there for the Israelites in the dessert for 40 years?

I began to see that that this was not a time to wander – it was a time to wonder. Wonder what new adventures laid ahead; wonder about the new ways I could help make the world a better place; wonder what my new mission in life would be. And I began to feel the wonder of the opportunity before me.

Retirement, and even semi-retirement, can be a frightening transition for those of us accustomed to frantic busyness. We can be easily overwhelmed by the avalanche of well-intended advice and forget to feel God’s presence within us. But if we quiet ourselves, listen to our heart and open ourselves to God’s gentle nudges, we will reach our Promised Land and discover God’s mission for each chapter of our lives.

Blessed Jesus, wonderful counsellor, quiet our fears during times of transition. Remind us that we will not get lost if we only take the time to feel your gentle nudges. Help us to wonder rather than wander and see change as opportunity. And believe that when we listen with our hearts, Your mission will be revealed. Amen

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Day 6: March 3

Chapter 5. New Commands and a New Covenant

By Amy Crawford

The title of the Godly Play story that invites the children to reflect on the Ten Commandments is called The Ten Best Ways. The stone tablets” are presented in a red heart-shaped box because these ways help us to love God and to love others, and remind us that God loves us. In the Godly Play circle, we talk together about how these may be the best ways, but they are not always the easy ways to live. I appreciate the opportunity Godly Play offers to present them to children as gifts of love, rather than commandments from an authoritarian God.

I loved grammar in school, especially diagramming sentences — the horizontal, vertical, dotted and slanted lines. Please do not ask me to do it today, as I’m sure I couldn’t! Another way that has helped me embrace these simple yet difficult statements given to Moses by God for us is to consider them from different grammatical moods and voices. Do you remember imperative, indicative and hortatory moods from grammar lessons? Imperative moods are commanding; indicative sentences offer a sense of certainty; hortatory statements might be encouraging or exhorting.

We often read the Ten Commandments or Ten Best Ways with an imperative voice. Watch the scene from the Cecile B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston, and you will hear the commanding voice of God as flames of fire etch the statements on stone.

What if, instead, we heard these statements in the indicative mood? God is certain that God’s people will do these things. Try it: “You will have no other gods before me.” “You will not murder or steal.” We are God’s people; God is certain that, because of our relationship, we will do the best we can.

If we heard the commands in a hortatory way, God would be like an encouraging coach: “C’mon, you can do it!” “You can follow my ways; you can refrain from adultery and lying!” “Yay team!”

My invitation to you is to play! Play with these statements. Play with the mood, play with different voices, diagram the sentences if you can remember how. Love them, love each other, love God and, most of all, know that God loves you.

Loving God, you offer so many ways for us to know and experience your love. We are grateful for your love and for your encouragement. We thank you for children, and especially for the children of Islington United Church who help us play and meet you in new ways. Bless the children. Bless us, and help us keep going in the best way.

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Day 5: March 2

Chapter 4. Deliverance

By Beth Pollock

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” And God said, “I will be with you.” (Exodus 3, verses 11-12a, NIV)

It’s hard to imagine what Moses must have thought. He was tending a flock of sheep when God’s voice came to him from inside a burning bush, telling him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. It’s no wonder he questioned whether he was worthy!

Shortly after my family and I joined Islington United Church over 20 years ago, I began to explore my faith more deeply, and these verses spoke powerfully to me. The passage is still one of my favourites. When I read it, I know I will never be alone.

The truth is, we all have burning bush moments in our lives, moments where we’re called to do something we’re afraid of. Like Moses, I sometimes try to argue with God, doubting my abilities. Like Moses, I have grown to understand I can count on God to be with me always.

I like to think that every bush might be a burning bush, that the one in scripture is just the one that Moses noticed. Because when we’re prepared to listen, God’s energy is there to guide us and help us reach our potential.

The burning bush is a reminder that God still speaks to me today, and every day.

God of wisdom, Let us be open to seeing the burning bushes in our own lives. Help us feel your loving presence when we hear your call. Give us the strength and the courage to answer that call, and to be transformed into the people you know we can be. Amen

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March 1

Psalm 146. "Judge not . . ."

By Dale Pringle

[The LORD] gives justice to the oppressed
and food to the hungry.
The LORD frees the prisoners.
The LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
(Psalm 146: 7-8a NLT)

She looked like a homeless person and when she entered the downtown coffee shop, I wasn’t the only one who noticed her. She wore dirty jeans and a torn jacket. Her dark hair was tangled and messy. She looked so incongruous there among the well-dressed office workers and business people. Other patrons stared at her and when she made eye contact, they quickly looked away. I did too. As she stood waiting in line to place her order, the man behind her stepped back a little. A lady at the counter turned with coffee in hand and I watched her wrinkle her nose as she squeezed past the disheveled drifter, being careful not to touch her.

The woman spoke quietly when she placed her order. I wondered what she’d ordered and if she had enough money.

“Well,” I thought, “at least she’s not buying booze or drugs.”

I assumed her hunger for food had won out this time. She’d get the drugs a bit later, I supposed, by whatever means necessary. I noticed then how still it was in the little coffee shop. No conversation at the tables. No laughter. No discussion of last night’s hockey game or this morning’s headlines. Nothing. I imagined the other patrons were as uncomfortable as I was, and I secretly hoped this woman would take her food and leave. She didn’t, though. Instead, she sat alone at the only empty table in the place, near the exit, and facing me. Gradually, she was forgotten. Bit by bit, the atmosphere returned to normal. People resumed their conversations. Collectively, we relaxed.

From across the room I watched this creature as she wriggled out of her grimy coat. She’d bought a bagel, a plain bagel. It had been sliced in half and placed on a white paper plate.

“She’ll have a hard time eating that,” I thought. “She probably has no teeth. God, how can people live like that? How can they care so little about themselves? Or about anything?”

The woman was sitting there motionless, staring off into space.

“She’s probably deranged,” I thought. “Probably crazy as a loon. I wish she’d take her stupid bagel and eat it somewhere else.”

Then she did something that completely changed the way I felt about her. She bowed her head, folded her hands and prayed. I don’t know what she said, for it was a silent prayer, known only to her and God, but I imagine she was offering thanks for the food she was about to eat. I felt my eyes moisten as my heart opened. And I smiled as I watched her. In a moment, she raised her head and picked up a slice of bagel, broke it and ate a piece. Calmly, confidently, she fixed her gaze on me and her dark eyes shone as she returned my smile.

She was not a worthless bum. Not a dirty, old derelict undeserving of love and respect. She is a child of God. She is as precious to God as any flower or tiny bird. She is as precious to God as my own children are to me.

And I am ashamed that I judged her so harshly.

Gracious God,
You have blessed us with the ability to think critically.
Open our eyes, hearts and minds so that we can see others as You do.
Guide us when our responses are less than loving.
Amen

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Day 4: February 29

Chapter 3. Joseph: From Slavery to Deputy Pharaoh

By Margot Jewell

I am someone who cries easily. I cry because I am upset, tired, frustrated or angry but also when I am full of love, gratitude and joy. Thus, it is not surprising that I noticed the frequent mention of tears in this complex narrative about Joseph. In The Story, Joseph’s tears are reported on five different occasions as he is reunited with his family. What kind of tears were these?

Like all Biblical heroes, Joseph was very much a man with human foibles and emotions. Most impressive about Joseph was his ability to see beyond his hurts, resentment and anger to be open to God’s bigger plan for his life and for the nation of Israel. Joseph’s words spoken to his brothers reflect a clear understanding of how God was using the misfortunes of Joseph’s life in God’s plan for the chosen people.

How did Joseph gain this understanding? Surely he turned to God in the midst of his despair and fear. His time in jail must have given him plenty of opportunity to reflect on the events of his life in the perspective of his belief in God’s unfailing love. Joseph freely acknowledged God’s empowerment when asked to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams.

How can we gain this perspective in the midst of the challenges life presents to us all? My natural reaction to feeling overwhelmed with the world situation or stresses in my daily living is to become upset and resentful. In my present circumstance of changing work and family commitments, it is easy to worry about the future. I find it helpful to stop and, through prayer and reflection, replace fear, anxiety and bitterness with an awareness of God’s faithfulness and love.

The story of Joseph is powerful in many ways! What a dramatic tale; a dysfunctional family breeding jealousy, leading to thoughts of murder, lies and deceit on everyone’s part. What is breathtaking is the power of God to take an incredibly bleak situation and turn it to good.

Loving God, thank you for your reassurance “… we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28 NIV) Open our eyes to see your hand working in our lives and in the world around us. Amen

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Day 3: February 28

Chapter 2: God Builds a Nation

By Dorothea Vickers

“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you. . . and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

God has a plan and it starts with Abraham. God promises a great nation and many blessings – Abraham and Sarah are only the beginning. Through many family generations – Isaac, Jacob, the twelve tribes, King David, King Solomon, and countless more; through exile and return, oppression and a bright new star; through different beliefs and religions over centuries of struggle and faith, all peoples of the earth are receiving the blessings that God had promised Abraham.

What a mind-boggling idea! Who would think of such a thing? It seems impossible! And where do we see these blessings in our world today? We are more than aware of wars and strife, of hunger, poverty, and oppression. All peoples are blessed?

But God had a plan. And God’s promises are never empty. Hearing he would become the father of a great nation, Abraham could have doubted. The whole idea was laughable to Sarah, so far beyond child-bearing age. But God never gives up. God’s chosen people didn’t always choose to follow as directed. They rebelled. Sibling rivalry was widespread as was the trickery and favouritism that accompanied it. God’s chosen ones proved to be a stubborn, stiff-necked people. And yet, God had promised Abraham a nation that would be as countless as the stars in the heavens. Imagine! A plan that would build a nation, a family for God. A family with a long history that would become home for God’s Son.

A great plan! And a great blessing! Those that follow God are indeed blessed. How could we not be? To be counted among God’s family, to be called children of God, to be close to Jesus who is brother and friend, Saviour and Lord.

God’s plan might have been overwhelming for Abraham, yet he followed into uncertainty because he trusted God and believed. We might also be overwhelmed by the struggles in this world or our own grief and sorrow. But we can trust God and God’s promises, and in faith, believe. God has never failed us but always surrounds us with love and mercy. Surely all peoples on earth will be blessed.

Gracious Lord, how can we ever thank you enough for the grace and mercy you shower on us? You had a plan that went beyond Abraham’s clan and the Hebrew people. Your promise was for all peoples to be blessed, to be part of your family, the great family of God. We are grateful that you love us, flawed as we are, and never ever give up. We are indeed blessed. Amen

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Day 2: February 27

Chapter 1: The Beginning of Life as We Know It

By Esther Khubyar

When I started to prepare for this devotional on Chapter 1 of The Story, I was determined to take a fresh look at this very familiar section of scripture and sure enough there it was in the first sentence: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. One simple word, created, stood out. One word which represents all the power that God used to create the vast universe that exists: the planetary systems; the sun, moon and stars; the waters and all life within the seas; the land, plant and animal life. And, then on the sixth day, God created mankind: Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, according to our likeness.”

What also caught my attention was that at the end of the six days of creation, God rested. I read a commentary that explained that God didn’t rest because of being tired; God stopped creating and passed on to human beings the responsibility to be co-creators as they bore children and respectfully managed the resources God provided.

May I suggest that since we are made in God’s likeness, as human beings, we have a special creative power, given to us by God? Every person, including the first human beings and the many peoples of the Bible, have been gifted with skills and talents to be able to contribute to the development of civilization according to God’s purpose and will for their lives and for God’s glory.

As co-creators we can tap the creative power of God that is within each of us to reorganize the resources around us in ways that inspire worship and glorify God. From fine art paintings to the crayon drawings of a child; from the ornate chapels of magnificent cathedrals to the simple altars of small village churches; from majestic music such as the Hallelujah Chorus to the simple praises sung by children; from natural and synthetic fibers woven to create fabrics for elaborate costumes to the simple cloths used in sewing a child’s costume for Christmas Eve; from the huge dams built to provide electricity and water to small fountains built to beautify parks. From performing arts to culinary arts, from education and technological advancements in agriculture, engineering, manufacturing, medicine – the list is endless – human beings are designed to use God’s gift of creativity to expand Creation in a multi-faceted and diverse world.

Dear Jesus: May the people of God recognize that we have been gifted with unique talents and skills by God to further reveal the glory of Creation. In Your Name, we pray. Amen.

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Day 1: February 26

God's Story, Our Story

By Reverend Maya Landell

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, O Lord, and take not your holy spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Psalm 51:10-12

These words of scripture are prayed and meditated on by Christians around the world today, Ash Wednesday. This scripture invites us into the season of Lent and calls us back to the heart of God.

Sometimes this season can be about repentance or turning around from the path we are on, stopping things that get in the way of our walk with God. Many give up or simplify something to make space for this walk: foods that aren’t good for our bodies; practices that harm the Earth; technology or activities that keep us from community and break relationships. A choice to give something up should not be seen as a punishment or a penance, but as space making and freedom giving.

Last year, I gave up “clothes” for Lent. Wearing the same purple dress for 40 days reminded me that I had enough and it freed up morning routine space for prayer.

But a mentor reminded me that Lent can also be a time of trying something new, or starting something that calls us back to the heart of God. God delights in our joy. We were created out of joy, and our Creator’s heart yearns for us to connect to this deep joy of grace and faith. Daily reading brings me deep joy. C.S. Lewis profoundly said: “We read to know that we are not alone.”

This Lent, we read through the Bible (a chapter a day) to engage in parts of the story we may not have heard; to recognize how we often rely on selective parts of the story, yet fail to see connections across the story; to connect with others; to deepen our faith; and to find our story in God’s story.

I want this experience to be so connected to my own story that I’m also going to use the daily “story” feature on Facebook and Instagram to reflect on this reading, something new to light my heart on fire and share the story. This Lenten season, I wonder what choices you will make that help you to find your story in God’s story.

Your bravery will allow others to walk in courage. Live good stories, be a good story. – Bianca Olthoff

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