One of my favorite activities as a youth minister is taking students on trips, particularly summer mission trips and camping excursions. These opportunities are always memorable and almost always draw our group closer together.
One summer, I led about 30 students and adults to a summer camp in North Carolina. This was one of my first experiences in taking a group of our size out of town, and I was a bit overwhelmed. Each night I returned to my room, uploaded pictures from the day, updated parents on their kids, and went over the next day’s schedule.
Meanwhile in the common room, our boys stayed up late, usually hanging out together until I or one of the other chaperones made them go to bed. For the first couple of nights I retreated to my room for my normal routine before going to sleep. But on the third night, the boys invited me to play a game with them. I agreed to do so after I finished my routine. But by the time I finished, it was past curfew. Instead of playing the game with the boys, I made them to go bed.
The next morning, it hit me that all of my plotting and organizing each night was causing me to miss out on the real ministry opportunities right in front of me. I decided that day that I would stop stressing about tomorrow’s schedule and simply be present with the youth every chance I had.
Sometimes life’s most significant moments are happening right in front of us without us even knowing it. And perhaps the reason we don’t know this is because we’re constantly plotting and arranging the future. Jesus calls us to slow down and appreciate the everyday moments right before us. Most of the time, these seemingly insignificant, mundane moments are what make life worth living.
How can you slow down and just be present today?
Gracious God, give us eyes to see and ears to hear your call to savor each moment life has to offer us. Amen.
When my wife, Courtney, and I moved into our first house, we decided to purchase new dressers for our bedroom. As a hospital chaplain, Courtney frequently worked on-call shifts. During one of these shifts, I decided to surprise her by putting the dressers together while she was away.
I pulled out all of the parts from the box, started piecing them together, and slowly began making progress. Everything seemed to be going perfectly… until the end. I didn’t read the directions, and when the dressers were nearly complete I realized that I had skipped a crucial step. I retraced my steps back to the beginning, and the second time around, read the directions carefully. I made sure to put first things first.
When I read Jesus’ words in our text, this experience comes to mind. Jesus seems awfully concerned about our putting our priorities in order. When they become misaligned, we get lost. Jesus instructs his disciples to strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (v. 33).
We often worry and stress over things that are trivial in nature. While some concerns obviously warrant our attention and energy, most of us likely agree that a majority of our worries stem from misaligned priorities. Jesus invites us to keep first things first. And when we strive first for the kingdom of God, our priorities find their order and our worries subside.
What worries or concerns are you carrying right now? How might you offer them to God today?
Loving God, help us put first things first this day and always by following you. Amen.
One of the greatest mistakes I’ve made in my life was basing a decision solely on money. Years ago, I was offered a leadership position that I was not ready to assume. I knew I wasn’t mature enough to step into this role, but I said yes despite my reservations. Its financial and long-term career prospects seemed too good to pass up.
It probably goes without saying, but I failed miserably in that role. It was a humiliating experience. Yet, all these years later, I don’t regret that experience. Through it I learned that when the purpose that drives or motivates us for a task is out of sync with the purpose of the work, it may be impossible for our efforts to be successful. What we live for often shapes the life we lead.
Jesus confronts us with this harsh reality when he says, You cannot serve God and wealth (v. 24). Money is not inherently a bad thing. Yet when making as much of it as possible becomes the primary driving force behind our decision making, pursuing it can corrupt and corrode our relationships with God and neighbor.
James K.A. Smith notes, “Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves. He isn’t content to simply deposit new ideas into your mind; he is after nothing less than your wants, your loves, your longings.”
We are what we love. If we love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, our money is never an end in itself. Instead, wealth becomes yet another tool God uses to further God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
When has money diverted your attention from God?
God, remind us that where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also. Amen.
Like many houses of worship, our church moved from having in-person services to livestreaming them online for a while during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ministers like myself not only planned worship each week, we also learned how to stream our services on social media and solve the inevitable technological issues that arose. It was quite the learning experience.
One Sunday morning we had problems with our stream and were troubleshooting the issue. We tried everything to get the stream running, but nothing worked. We went through our checklist one more time and discovered the problem: we hadn’t entered our stream key into the software. This is the simplest, yet most important step in a successful livestream. No wonder we were having problems!
Sometimes the smallest things make the biggest difference. A nail in your tire leaves you stranded for hours on the side of the road; a mere spark forms a wildfire; wearing a mask helps slow the spread of a deadly virus. Jesus says, “The eye is the lamp of the body” (v. 22). The eye, that small organ with a large impact. According to a common view in the ancient world, the eye allowed the body’s light (or darkness) to be seen by others. Maybe Jesus’ metaphor inspired future writers to describe the eye as a window to the soul.
How we tend to the little things in our lives often reveals our spiritual character. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes a big deal about tending to small things with great humility and devotion. Perhaps that’s because what we often consider small is far from insignificant.
What small things make a big difference in your life? How do these small things relate or connect to your faith?
Gracious God, remind us that what seems to us the least is often what matters most in your kingdom. Give us the wisdom to focus on and tend to what is small yet significant. Amen.
As my wife and I packed moving boxes, I asked Courtney, “How in the world did we accumulate all of this stuff?” We were fresh out of seminary. I served a local church while Courtney finished her Clinical Pastoral Education. We had little money or stuff… or so we thought.
When we had to get everything into a box and onto a truck, we saw how much we’d accumulated. We realized how easy it was to acquire what didn’t mean a lot to either of us. We’d bought items without considering their purpose or our need, then never used them. Rather than carry their dead weight to our new home, we discarded them.
I’m sure this sounds familiar. Purchasing consumer goods drives our economy. This isn’t inherently bad, of course, but our society’s emphasis on consumption often breeds discontentment. And that isn’t an accident.
In his short book Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig writes, “The world is increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more… To be happy with your own non-upgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.”
Jesus’ invitation to store up for yourselves treasures in heaven is our call to reimagine what brings value to our lives (v. 20). What we own can end up owning us unless we’re ruthlessly intentional about how we invest our time, talents, and treasure. Jesus wants us to be deliberate in these matters so that we’ll invest ourselves in kingdom principles rather than trivial pursuits.
What does “treasure in heaven” mean to you? How are you—or how could you begin—investing in this treasure today?
God, help us to be intentional with what we treasure. Reveal to us what is truly worth investing our lives in now and for eternity. Amen.
“Please, Daddy,” my 2-year-old daughter says to me. And then she flashes her pale blue eyes, pushes out her bottom lip, and gives me a look of sweet desperation, hoping her overwhelming cuteness will be enough to make me cave. Most of the time her tactic works, which is why she’s not bashful in employing it! She has learned that when it comes to getting what you want, presentation matters.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses this concept of presentation directly, particularly as it relates to fasting. And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, he says (v. 16). He makes it clear that presenting yourself as a righteous person misses the point. Fasting is primarily a practice of self-denial, intended for self-reflection and recommitting ourselves to God’s reign over all facets of our life. Fasting involves deepening our relationship with God, neighbor, and creation rather than presenting ourselves for individual recognition.
I was a college student when Facebook first arrived on campuses. After creating an account, I quickly discovered the allure of documenting my every move and presenting myself as someone who had it all together. Social media, in all its forms and outlets, lets us present ourselves in the ways we hope others perceive us. Perhaps fasting trends in Jesus’ day weren’t all that different from the allure of a pious or put together social media presence.
The desire to be recognized and respected seems to span millennia. Most of us long to be noticed and appreciated for whatever we define as being a “good” person. Yet, true fasting invites the opposite desire. The intentional practice of self-denial leads us to not elevate ourselves, but to renovate our hearts by the grace of God.
What might God be calling you to fast from today? How might detachment from these things help you grow closer to God and your neighbors?
Help us to be present with you, God, instead of presenting our image. Amen.
I have three sons. As you can imagine, we experience times of cooperation and times of conflict. The greatest periods of unrest among them result from insult or injury and require outside, parental intervention to resolve. This resolution can feel forced and insincere. The apologies made in these moments may come through gritted teeth, steely gazes, and stubborn sneers. In those moments, forgiveness is either granted
or withheld on the basis of whim rather than principle. Yet, my wife and I insist on the asking for and granting of forgiveness. In order to resume peaceful relations in our home, we need, at least on the record if not in their hearts, a profession of forgiveness. Otherwise, another outbreak of skirmishes is inevitable.
Withholding forgiveness is power. I’ve seen my youngest seize it when he had no other weapons against his older brothers. He sometimes clings to his hurt and pain, refusing to forgive even though he knows he is sacrificing screen time in the transaction.
It’s no different for us. We withhold forgiveness from others
because it makes us feel powerful and in control. We refuse to grant absolution when we don’t want to relinquish the act of nursing our wounds. We cling to bitterness because the grudge feels better in that moment than clearing the air with a loved one or co-worker.
Jesus concludes his teaching on prayer by returning to the theme of forgiveness. He makes it clear that God’s forgiveness is connected to our forgiveness of others. Refusing to forgive will hurt us more profoundly than the person we seek to punish.
What ill effects am I experiencing right now because I am clinging to a grudge?
Merciful God, hear my plea for forgiveness and give me the wisdom and strength to forgive others. Amen.
During the last two summers that my family lived in Texas, we had an above-ground pool. The pool lay dormant from fall to spring, and that first off season—for reasons that were unclear to my brother and me—my dad didn’t drain it completely but left it half full. During the fall and winter, the water went from clear blue to cloudy to a soupy, algae-filled green. It collected twigs, leaves, and bugs, and metamorphosed into an unsightly cesspool.
At the first hint of spring in late March, anticipation of summer fun inspired me to start cleaning the pool. I ascended the ladder and with the water level now even lower, held onto the rail to reach out with a dip net to remove the off-season debris. Not long into the task, my younger brother appeared from nowhere, put his hand to my back and tried to push me in. I held on, and in the inexplicable way parents have of being all-seeing, my dad immediately came out of the garage and admonished my brother not to push me into the pool or else there would be corporal consequences. But the temptation for my brother, who was about 7 or 8 at the time, was too strong. A few minutes later, he returned and finished the deed. When Dad heard my yell and the attendant splash, he emerged again from the garage to deliver the promised punishment. As I spluttered and gasped in the green pond scum, my brother wailed at the pain of failing to pass on the temptation, despite the warning.
We face many trials, and not all of them come with a warning. Jesus knew that about our lives, so he taught us to pray this way to remind us to be ready for whatever trials or temptations may come.
What trial do you face today and how can you prepare to face it?
Ever-present God, you are with me now, throughout this day, and throughout every day as I face life’s challenges and temptations. Help me to recognize you and the resources you’ve given me to pass the tests. Amen.
After graduating college, I spent two and a half months at home until I landed a full-time job. The fog of recession was still clearing, and though I was receiving interviews, nothing materialized in time for me to avoid returning to the old bedroom I shared with my brother. It was not how I imagined my post-collegiate journalism career would launch.
That time at home also forced me to confront the rift in my relationship with my dad. We had a falling out during spring break over my relationship with my girlfriend, and I hadn’t spoken to him since. It weighed on us both, and with me being at home, there was nowhere to hide. I chaperoned a week of youth camp that summer, and in that time away determined that the only way through this impasse was to humble myself, acknowledge my father’s intentions were only to help me make good decisions, forgive him for the clumsy way he expressed that, and seek his forgiveness for cutting off contact and displaying hostility and bitterness. It was a difficult conversation, but a life-giving and restoring one. Seeking his forgiveness and restoring our relationship made a profound difference on the rest of my life. It also taught me how to forgive and seek forgiveness.
Whether you’re used to saying “debts” or “trespasses” when you recite the Lord’s Prayer, forgiveness is Jesus’ key concept here. He teaches his disciples to ask God for a conditional forgiveness that is based on how we forgive others. This makes sense. Our capacity to seek and accept grace is contingent upon our awareness of our need. When we recognize our need for forgiveness, we will more readily forgive others. In turn, God’s forgiveness is offered to us in equal measure.
Who needs forgiveness from me today and for what do I need forgiveness?
God of grace and mercy, teach me to forgive as completely and continually as you do, so that I may approach others with humility and an open heart. Amen.
I am a bit obsessive about measuring, recording, and tracking my health habits. I’ve kept a spreadsheet with the details of my every run and workout since 2000. I weigh myself each Sunday, adding that information to my spreadsheet as well. As of this writing, I’ve logged on to a calorie counting app for 784 days in a row, entering the calories for everything I’ve consumed, from a cup of black coffee to a breath mint, without missing a day. I admit it’s reached unhealthy levels. Too often I delay the start of dinner to put in 456 calories for a slice of meatloaf. I’m afraid that if I don’t enter the details of the meal promptly, I’ll forget what I had to eat. That fear prevents me from enjoying the meal. Like the calories I take in, moderation is the key, but I can’t seem to moderate my need to track my calories.
All of this was made worse by the out-of-control feeling I had during the days of lockdown and quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic. Counting my calories gave me the illusion of control, which I learned was a poor coping mechanism. During the worst of the struggle, there were days when I was tempted to log on to the app and enter the next day’s calories as well, anticipating my meals and quantities to get a head start. That’s when I knew I had gone too far. I had taken what was supposed to be a healthy habit to an unhealthy extreme.
My prayer in those moments, to help me back away from the ledge of obsessiveness, became: “Thank you for my daily sustenance.” It helped me not count my calories before I consumed them, and, instead, to focus on God’s provision for that day and for that moment.
What is the “bread” you need to be sustained today?
God who provides, take away my anxiety about tomorrow, my greed for more, and my hunger for control. Thank you for your provision today. Amen.