Lenten Devotionals

Each year, members of Christ Church in Short Hills volunteer to write a devotional for Lent. We each choose a bible verse from a predetermined set and write on it. These are mine from over the years.

The Great Litany

It’s Sunday. We all clamber on, bow our heads, and get to the work at hand,
Rowing together amidst these lives.

    Have mercy

One huddles close to his wife, who is thin with cancer. He rows.
Another is pressed flat by loneliness; her house is filled with echoes. She rows.
Children run in the nave, downright riotous. We row for them.
Newlyweds try not to check their watches during the prayer. They row.

    Have mercy, have mercy

My daughter tells me she dreamt of my dying—
She’s 10 and seeing more of life now.
“When you're gone, how will I know you’re with me?”
I blink and look at her.
“We’ll pick a dear memory, and when you think of that, you’ll know you’re not alone.”
She smiles and goes off to play; I turn back to the dishes, stunned.

    Have mercy, have mercy, have mercy

We watch movies on the couch, my lanky child lying on me as she did when a baby.
I let her sleep, then catch a glimpse of my crepey hand and pull her close.
We are our own little boat tonight so I play coxswain,
But I wonder if I have done enough to show her the way.
Will she weather all that is coming?
Does she have what she needs to navigate the Deep?
As our breathing syncs and slows, my eyes become heavy
And we row into the night, our hearts keeping time —

    Have mercy, have mercy, have mercy, have mercy

C Train To the Temple

As I am of dust, so am I the Pharisee–

I primp for conquest, waxy with bad credit
I glare at my phone, hissing with chagrin
I growl in the embrace of my hangover
I shove ahead, razor thin in business casual

    My mouth is blighted, I only taste ashes
    My body is wracked, I feel the pull of every thread
    My sight is dimmed, I see just what the world so owes me
    My soul is empty, I ring like a bell if touched–

        Don’t you people know who I am??

As I am of heaven, so am I the Tax Collector–

I pray in the apartment found in the dead of night
I jaw with creditors, pledging payment for time
I find a stray dog and leash him with my fancy belt
We walk and learn the names of old ladies and kids
    I come to work and actually work
    I trace the childhood faces of fellow riders on the train
    I switch to water, so much water, and am washed clean
    I assemble a new life from familiar rubble–

        How did I not know all you lovely people??

If God answered my recent complaint
as he had that of Jeremiah

I park at Trader Joe's, still listening to the news despite the chilly day.
Yet another story of corruption and lack of care...
I pound the steering wheel in rage
I demand of God, why do you let good people struggle?
I whisper to God, why do you let bad people live so well?
I rest my head on the wheel, my tantrum done.

The air in the car suddenly warms
And grew sweet with flowers as on a sticky July day.

In the stillness, amidst the faint sounds
    of what I could swear were Virginia peepers,
A small still voice says,

Are you serious?

Look around you.
I do not let bad people prosper.
Evil is a germ seeking immediate gain, blinded always to the cost.
You are my children, all of you–
When one gets fevered, I use others as a drawing salve to set things right.

If this moment is too much for you,
    how will you handle it when I call you?
How will you find your way to Me
    if you keep cursing a pebble at your feet?

If the whole land must plunge into madness
    to burn off the latest infection,
Turn your eyes to me.
Walk towards me every day.
Be. My. Mercy.

The voice goes silent.
I look in the mirror and realize I’m a blotchy mess,
Teary eyed, white knuckling the wheel...

Eventually I stagger inside to go buy groceries,
    thanking God I have a list.

Later, I notice that little crack in the windshield is gone
And the car's empty ashtrays are filled with honeysuckle.

It buds, blooms, and fades before I clean it out
    when I get the milk I had forgotten the week before.

I read the passage a few dozen times and this one moment kept insisting to be told, burnished as it is by selective memory and sentiment:

I am 20 and driving to Richmond, Virginia in late summer. My great aunt has commanded me to visit. She recently moved to a new assisted living facility and upon settling in, realizes she rather hates it. As the matriarch of our family, she has notified everyone with her usual rigor of her misery. I am in full dread as I get closer to her new home.

I round a turn and spot them: thousands of raspberries in a thicket just off the road's shoulder. There is nothing like a fresh, sun-warmed berry in late August. I have a mad idea out of nowhere–I pull over and find a paper bag I roll into a bowl. I barely need to touch them; as thick and long as my thumb tip, these berries jump off the bush.

I arrive. Auntie Laura is grim. She greets me in the lobby and turns to walk to the elevators. I follow.

She does not stop until I insist she look at the gift I have for her. I present the stained bag shakily, hoping she doesn't rip into me for being such a bumpkin. She stops, looks at the berries, looks at me, and turns wordlessly into the deserted dining hall.

We find, to no one’s surprise, there is no clotted cream. I get bowls and cutlery while Auntie Laura rains down displeasure upon the poor kitchen worker who helps us wash our treasure. I load the bowls up with berries and beg her to come sit with me. She does not until she has gone to swipe a carton of half and half from the nurses' coffee station, glaring them into silence. We sit, pray, and dig in.

The milk goes pink almost immediately, the berries bursting from the lightest brush of our spoons. I watch Auntie Laura's shoulders soften ever slightly with the first glorious bite. These berries are magnificent, just perfect. Out of nowhere, Auntie Laura grabs my hand and firmly holds on. I sputter mid-bite but know enough to say nothing as I switch my spoon to my left hand. We sit like that, eating with increasing happiness while Auntie Laura swings her legs every now and again in the too-tall chair.

From that day on, Auntie Laura and I became much closer, exchanging letters and chatty calls until her death. I did not think to bring those berries–God gave that nudge and luckily, I didn't get in the way. That tiny moment connected us together as never before, and I have only God to thank for it.

Those berries are what I think of when I am called to be a letter from Christ, written with the ink of the Spirit on human hearts.

What are you looking for?


My childhood preacher used the King James in his sermons
    and back then it was What seek ye?

Now I am dealing with What are you looking for?

I miss the room to slip and slide, to pretend the dusty Word has no real purchase here–

What seek ye?
        –Ye Olde Sandal Shoppe
Where dwellest thou?
        –A lovely suburb, but oh the taxes!

I go on for days like this, amusing myself into all sorts of trouble.

        What are you looking for?

I find the whole exchange nearly unremarkable...

Some of John’s friends see a man and follow / they visit the guy’s flat / they talk for hours / another guy brings his brother / The man they followed gives them nicknames / someone makes sure we get the whole Rock thing

...except they run into the Savior on a side street, a man they sought so long they now turn mid-stride and leave all they know. He gives them names we speak today, dozens and scads and millions of us as we whisper the Word.

And then I hear it. I actually look up from my phone.

I hear a not unkind voice roughened from talking all day, riding on air stirred by Aramaic and my child’s running by, and I hear it plain as day:

My child, I asked you a question.

I have to track down the verse for this year


God decided to send a messenger and lo,
    John was born to the role
As soon as the child could speak, he made his purpose clear–
“Making way, making way”
And so he did just that, growing to manhood
    as he told everyone who’d listen
Of the marvel who was to come.

What you never hear is that John was actually a riot
Sure, he ended up with honey in his beard
    and callouses for shoes,
And downwind he was a calamity 'til he hit the river
But he roared with laughter born of certainty–
“He’s near, he’s coming, he’s here, get ready!”

Knowing the inevitable end, he found those locusts delicious
Knowing the inevitable beginning, he practiced
    preaching to passing lizards
And lit up when he saw people walking to him from the city.
“Let go, let the water wash your sins away!"
John was a joy when he knew you were willing,
    his voice careening over the sand.

And then Jesus came, and John wept
    while laughing in the Jordan,
Knowing his work was done and the way had been made–
“I'm nothing next to this one –
    I get you clean, he gets you into Heaven!"
Once the Lord was done talking, John chimed in–
“Son, I’ve known you since before we were born!"


You don’t hear much about how it really ended, either
He knew his would be a full stop
    as they marched him into the palace
Herod wouldn’t look him in the eye,
    the ladies skittered to the shadows

As he was dragged in chains from the banquet,
    John hurled a last raw-throated zinger:
“If you think I’m a pain in the neck,
    wait ‘til you meet the next guy!”

The door thundered shut behind him
    as a single camel hair flitted on a draft
And landed, unnoticed, on Salomé's half-eaten lamb chop.

Libby Clarke / Studio
I make things and teach people to change the world for the better.
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