September 18, 2014

Reading Between the Lines of Scripture

By Jan Johnson |
Photo by Tony Maddox

Imagine you are a disciple standing next to Jesus. A slick young guy walks up. He throws himself down, kneeling before Jesus, and almost demands: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Standing by as a disciple, you notice this stunningly devout man is rich.

But Jesus is not fazed. He questions the young man’s words and then tells him to simply obey the Ten Commandments. You are not surprised when this obviously educated young man says he has kept these commands since childhood. You think, What a sharp, obedient guy this is! Maybe he’ll join us!

But Jesus pauses. He looks at him and loves him. You can see he really means it. Then Jesus says, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

You think, Uh oh! Why did Jesus say this? It will drive the young man away. Sell everything? We’ve given up everything. But Jesus also said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” So this guy’s heart needs to be changed? How can that be? He’s one of the sharpest guys we’ve met.

But Jesus also says: “Then come, follow me.”

So Jesus does want him as a follower.

The man’s face falls and he walks away sad.

He looks crushed. Maybe I should run after him.

The first time I meditated on this scene (Mark 10:17-22), I was riveted by how Jesus looked at this young man and loved him. In that atmosphere of love, Jesus challenged him to give up the thing that made the young man who he was: riches.

Since then, I have imagined Jesus’ loving face looking at me and challenging me to give up things I cling to. I don’t always give them up, but I’m mesmerized by how God (through Jesus) challenges us in the midst of quiet, teeming love, as if to say, “Jan, you can do this.”

This reading “between the lines” of scripture occurs as we step into biblical scenes. This kind of meditation (which I call the “movie method”) was used by Ignatius of Loyola. He suggested people place themselves in the text as a careful observer – as a “fly on the wall.” If prompted by God, we become one of the characters, seeing the story unfold from that character’s viewpoint. We try to feel what that person may have felt or think what they thought, relying on even the smallest words of scripture to give us clues. You may protest that you can’t do this because you don’t have an imagination. But if you can worry, you have an excellent, trained imagination. The key is to give it to God, which meditation helps you do.

Perhaps you want to hear God better? If so, you may enjoy using Taste and See: Experiencing the Stories of Advent and Christmas in a group or individually. This Advent guide helps you enter into the Advent stories and see the events from different people’s points of view. (Cultural and contextual cues are provided to help you.) Prepare yourself to experience the Bible events as you never have before.


Jan Johnson is a writer, speaker, and spiritual director who holds degrees in Christian education and spirituality. She is the author of 17 books, including Taste and See, Enjoying the Presence of God, When the Soul Listens, Savoring God’s Word, and many magazine articles. Johnson is also a frequent retreat leader and conference speaker. For more information, see


September 15, 2014

Walking in Jesus’ Footsteps

By Boe Harris-Nakakakena |
Walking Despair
The Upper Room Disciplines is a best-selling book of daily devotions published annually by Upper Room Books. Each week’s readings are reflections on scripture passages from the lectionary for that period. On Mondays the first reading for the week will be posted. We’d love to hear what you think about the week’s readings and prayers. Just sign in and add your comment in the Comments section following this post.


Read Exodus 16:2-3

“Let my people go” declares Moses, and Pharaoh does just that. The journey out of bondage to the Promised Land begins. God saves the people from the Egyptian army by parting the Red Sea. Yet not long into their wilderness journey, the Israelites seemingly forget their excitement at leaving Egypt and begin to complain of hunger. Their recollection of food in Egypt is all the more tantalizing in their current setting. They complain to Moses and Aaron, expressing their desire to have died in Egypt with their fill of bread and meat, rather than dying in this land of nothing where starvation will surely take their lives.

Forgetting the work and power of God to redeem, the Israelites give way to hopelessness and despair. Coming from a “cushy” life in Egypt, they have not known this kind of struggle, the struggle for day-to-day subsistence. What will sustain them?

As an American Indian, I often find the word exodus calling to mind my own people. I reflect upon a time in our history when we were forced to leave our homelands and travel to lands not known to us. My people moved from a place of promise to a place of bondage. Some tribes were forced at gunpoint to march for thousands of miles with little food or water. Hopelessness and despair could easily have overwhelmed them. What sustained them? Perhaps part of the answer for the Native people came in their strong sense of community and faith.

For the Israelites the answer to sustenance came in God’s response to their complaints. For us today who find ourselves hopeless and despairing, what sustains us? Part of the answer comes in the sharing of biblical stories like today’s passage. Reading of other persons’ struggles and despair reminds us that we are not alone in our difficulties. God will hear and respond.

God, our Sustainer, help us to trust in you always. Amen.


Boe Harris-Nakakakena is a Northern Traditional and jingle dress dancer who plays the Native American traditional flute. Of Ojibwe and Dakota heritage, she shares her ministry of dance and music at churches, schools, and cultural awareness programs. Harris-Nakakakena attends St. John’s United Methodist Church in Seaford, Delaware.

September 11, 2014

In the Midst of Great Tragedy, Hope Lives

By Michael W. Waters |
Michael W. Waters

Inspired following recent travel to England in my senior year at Southern Methodist University, I was anxiously counting down the days to my graduation. I was ready to begin seminary and further pursue my calling to ordained ministry.

Then planes crashed into buildings. Two towers fell. Many people died. And the world changed forever on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

As I viewed this tragedy as it unfolded on my television screen, my internal wiring said, “Something needs to be done.” So I did what comes naturally for an African American man shaped and nurtured by the traditions of my African American church: I put on a suit and tie and left my apartment to gather with the community. I headed to the student center. There I found a mass of students huddled in silence around television screens, struggling to make sense of what they had witnessed.

Then I headed to the administration building. It just seemed like the next thing I should do. As providence had it, when I arrived at the steps, the doors flew open and the chaplain to the university, Dr. Will Finnin, emerged. Having just left a briefing with the president, his eyes caught mine.

I proclaimed, “We need to have a candlelight vigil.”

He replied, “You plan it!” as he hurried past me en route to his office to console countless students, including several from the New York area.

I immediately began planning, aided by my girlfriend (now wife). “We will need candles, lots of them, some selections from the gospel choir, words of comfort, and a moment of silence.” We spent the remainder of the morning and early afternoon planning and executing. Then suddenly, I hit a wall. I had sprung into action without processing what I had seen or how it had made me feel.

Physically and emotionally drained, I sank into my chair and stared into space. After a few moments, I regained my strength and thought to myself, I need to process this. Then, as if I was handed something from the balconies of heaven, I sprang to my feet, endowed with new inspiration and vigor, declaring, “Journals!” We needed journals. We needed to write our thoughts and, in the process, release our emotions. As our university community gathered that evening, members did so greeted by bound journals with blank pages ready to serve as canvases for their thoughts.

* * *

A month after the terrorist attacks, I boarded a charter bus filled with students and staff from Southern Methodist University. Our student-led ministry had planned and secured funding for a community service project trip to New York City. Ours was a long, 33-hour drive from Dallas to New York, but we committed to the trek to support a city that had experienced such great tragedy.

I will never forget our entry into the city. Immediately, our eyes fell upon the New York skyline. More than a month later, smoke continued to rise from the fallen towers. In such a massive city that had experienced such great loss, what could we do to make a difference? How could we spread hope? Well, since our student-led ministry was a gospel choir, we sang.

We sang in a Harlem fire station to surviving firefighters still grieving the loss of their fallen. We sang in a nursing home to elders not cognizant of the previous month’s tragedies but experiencing their own grief and loss due to pain and reduced mobility. We sang upon the loading dock of an abandoned building in the South Bronx to the working poor and the homeless.

And as we sang, tears fell, not just from our listeners’ eyes but from ours as well. As we sang, crowds joined in. as we sang, people clapped their hands, stomped their feet, and swayed from side to side. As we sang, we saw the glory of God! Often our singing would give invitation to prayer, and sidewalks and street corners became altars as we lifted our petitions to God.

Fast-forward ten years. I received a call from the university. The 9/11 journals, now bound into one collection, had been brought forth from the archives. Their story had caught the imagination of a dynamic young local reporter – the type you expect to see anchoring network news one day. Conducting a series of interviews on the campus, she wanted to capture my recollections of that fateful day and the journals it produced.

As I sat and viewed decade-old texts for the first time since their composition, they gripped my heart and mind. These writings were powerful and captivating. They revealed real fear, uncertainty, and anger. Yet also evident in these pages: hope.

One student wrote, “Trouble and tribulation are the greatest forces of unification.” Another: “Truly this day has been one of darkness and one of light.” Ten years later, dried ink upon once-blank pages presented the core emotions of life as all appeared so uncertain, and yet, there was hope in the breaking forth of a new and better day.

In reflecting about journal entries, cross-country bus rides, and gospel singing and praying with others, of this I am certain: in the midst of great tragedy, hope lives.

Hope speaks, hope journeys, hope sings, and hope prays!

Dear God, help us to restore hope in the face of tragedy, knowing that you will give us the grace to endure. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

This article is excerpted from pages 37-39 of Freestyle: Reflections on Faith, Family, Justice, and Pop Culture by Michael W. Waters. Copyright © 2014 by Michael W. Waters. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Fresh Air Books.
Michael W. Waters is founder and senior pastor of Joy Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas. As a pastor, preacher, author, motivational speaker, and community organizer, Dr. Waters inspires national and international audiences with his message of hope and empowerment. For more information about Waters, visit his website:



September 8, 2014

Choosing God—Freeing the Soul

By Catherine Cavanagh |
Catherine Cavanaugh
The Upper Room Disciplines is a best-selling book of daily devotions published annually by Upper Room Books. Each week’s readings are reflections on scripture passages from the lectionary for that period. On Mondays the first reading for the week will be posted. We’d love to hear what you think about the week’s readings and prayers. Just sign in and add your comment in the Comments section following this post.


Read Exodus 14:19-31

The Israelites have chosen to follow Moses, to walk away from bondage. But how helpless they must feel as they stand before the waters of the Red Sea, the angry Egyptian army bearing down on them from behind as the water bars their way forward! Two possible outcomes loom: to drown or to be cut down by the sword.

But then God steps in. In their most helpless moment, in their time of utter desperation, when nothing can save them, God changes everything. A lesson lies hidden here, a truth we so often forget. When we choose God, there is always another way, another perspective. Our human minds are so small, our imagination so limited that we cannot fathom the possibilities that God opens for us. Only when we give over power to God, when we choose the right thing to do—the only right thing to do—to save our people, to escape bondage of whatever sort, to take the path God calls us toward, do we allow God’s love to shine most brightly and show us the way.

This does not mean we will avoid suffering—even if the Israelites walk through on dry land. It does not mean we can abdicate personal responsibility for our neighbor, nor do we get to live in a world without conflict. The risks may seem great if we give up the greed, the addictions, the anger that hold us in bondage. But if we dare to walk away, if we dare to take the path out of slavery, then God will be there parting the waters and strengthening our hearts. Trust in God means making compassionate and courageous choices and believing a way can be found to truth and love.

Dear God, open our eyes to the bonds that hold us. Give us the courage to take the first step away from the things that enslave us. Help us embrace freedom and believe that you will show us the way across the seas, the deserts, and the mountains that rise up to challenge us. Amen.


Catherine Cavanagh is the chaplaincy leader at St. Mary Catholic High School in Brockville, Ontario, and a student in the Doctor of Ministry program at the University of Toronto (Regis College).  She is the author of Soul Side: Articles of Faith, and welcomes online visitors at

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