On Restraint

On Restraint

I had the privilege of attending an Ash Wednesday Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, near Catholic University in NE Washington DC this week.

Under a dreary winter sky we walked toward the large cathedral, a few others blowing in alongside at the end of this busy workday. The large wooden doors welcomed us into the immense Basilica, where some hundreds were gathering to mark the start of this impending liturgical season.

I haven’t often made a big production out of Lent, in my personal life nor in congregational settings (production might be the wrong word here—observance?), though I’ve increasingly made varied attempts to recognize, honor, and live into it at some level over the years. Sometimes us Protestants tend to forget about Lent until Holy Week. Better late than never?

After finding a pew somewhere in the middle of this huge church, we sang a processional hymn. Many voices joined the cantor, singing; “Again we keep this solemn fast, a gift of faith from ages past, this Lent which binds us lovingly, to faith and hope and charity.”

It got me to thinking about the gift(s) of tradition—here we stood, as many have stood before us, in this vast, holy space—the largest Catholic church in North America. I am one who is quick to question, wonder, and ask whether various traditions, rituals and observances are worthwhile—Why are we doing this? When did it start? What purpose does it serve? What is its intent? How does this fit in the larger picture? Is there some Scriptural connection or basis? Is it still life-giving?

The next line of the hymn we sang went: “More sparing, therefore, let us make the words we speak, the food we take, our sleep, our laughter, ev’ry sense; learn peace thru holy penitence.”

Sitting in this vast, austere setting, with the wind blowing harshly outside, and pew after pew of darkly clad worshippers stretching out in front of me, it was easy to get into the spirit of “sparing.” I felt ready to abandon all extravagance for the next 40 days. Ready to swear off dessert and good wine. Ready to speak only when needed. To limit my too-frequent (and ill-fated) attempts at humor.

Could such restraint really lead me on a path of holiness and deeper connection this season of Lent? I think it actually could. I understand the possibility for “traditionalism” or “legalism”—but I also understand rhythm and season and intentionality. And if one’s heart is to seek fullness or satisfaction elsewhere than in the usual outlets—good food, glib conversation, excessive entertainment—I have to think one might well find it.

The idea of putting ashes on the forehead, as best history can remember, began about 1000 years ago. As I left my pew and stood before this graying, wise-countenanced African-American priest, and heard him say in a serious voice: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”—it had the intended effect. It reaffirmed the words of the hymn we had moments before sung, and I was ready to “more sparing make” quite a few things.

In the end, I haven’t necessarily decided to give anything up—except perhaps, as Pope Francis reminded, indifference—but I do long to give in to this desire to be mindful of what I eat and how much, what I say and how, where I give my time and to what, and see if this old tradition might have plenty of life left in it. I suspect I won’t be disappointed.

bryan-2Bryan Berghoef is a pastor, speaker, and author of the book: Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation and God. He’s also a big fan of his kids, baseball, and a good scotch. Listen to Bryan’s weekly podcast: Pub Theology Live! on Tuesday nights at 9pm ET.

Of Gulls and Men


A Reflection for Lent

I read Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck recently.  There’s this terrific moment when one of the main characters, Pilon, has a sacred encounter with sea gulls:

“These birds are flying across the forehead of the Father.  Dear birds, dear sea gulls, how I love you all.  Your slow wings stroke my heart as the hand of a gentle master strokes the full stomach of a sleeping dog, as the hand of Christ stroked the heads of little children.  Dear birds,” he thought, “fly to our Lady of Sweet Sorrows with my open heart.”

And then he said the loveliest words he knew, “Ave Maria, gratia plena –

There was, nor is, nor ever has been a purer soul than Pilon’s at that moment… A soul washed and saved is a soul doubly in danger, for everything in the world conspires against such a soul.  “Even the straws under my knees,” says Saint Augustine, “shout to distract me from prayer.”

Pilon’s soul was not even proof against his own memories; for, as he watched the birds, he remembered that Mrs. Pastano used sea gulls sometimes in her tamales, and that memory made him hungry, and hunger tumbled his soul out of the sky.  Pilon moved on, once more a cunning mixture of good and evil.”

We looked at Jesus in the desert at our house church gathering this past Sunday, and noted how this episode of temptation came right after a high point: his baptism in the Jordan River.  Is this paradigmatic of human life?  Are we most vulnerable when we’ve just come through a profound spiritual moment?

Lent is a season to consider new spiritual practices, or to incorporate some new habits.  Yet, as Augustine notes, even our best intentions are easily undone by distractions shouting at us from around and beneath us.  This is probably true these days as ever, amid Facebook notifications, Twitterfeeds, and busy schedules.  But that also makes this season of Lent as needed as ever.

In the coming weeks, we might do well to intentionally spend some time in the straw, adding a new spiritual discipline or practice, while paying attention to what it is that distracts us from these higher pursuits.

And who knows, perhaps a moment of sublimity such as Pilon knew will come our way.

Just watch out for Mrs. Pastano’s tamales.

Bryan Berghoef writes and tweets from the nation’s capital.  His book: Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God invites you to engage in deep conversations over a good beer.  You can follow Bryan on Twitter @bryberg.


Sacred Reading


Lectio Divina is the Latin for ‘Holy Reading’ and was a form and approach to praying with Scripture that was common among medieval religious orders. The value of Lectio Divina was rediscovered in the twentieth century.

Essentially Lectio Divina involves taking a short passage of Scripture and pondering it. This can be done alone or in a group, and normally involves prolonged periods of silence.




Choose a reader.  The reader will read the text through four times, slowly, with a time of silence between each reading.  Allow the words to wash over you.  Be present.  What is God saying to you right here and now?  Open yourself to His Words.

From the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John:


“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep.  Where can you get this living water?”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst.  Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water. . .”

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breaking out of ruts

Vinyl records are made by cutting grooves or ruts into the vinyl.  The record (at this point called a lacquer) is placed on the cutting machine where electronic signals from the master recording travel to a cutting head, which holds a stylus or needle.  The needle etches a groove into the record that spirals to the center of the circular disc.  The imprinted lacquer is then sent to a production company, where it is coated in metal, such as silver or nickel, to create a metal master.

Our lives also operate in grooves.  We operate a certain way, day after day after day.  Sometimes our grooves — our habits, our ways of being — create beautiful music.  Sometimes our grooves are more like ruts — they create sounds that are less inviting, even harsh.

Lent is a season in which we are invited to break out of the ruts we may have fallen into, by changing up our habits, and acknowledging that our lives, by God’s grace, do not have to fall into ruts that are etched in metal or stone.
We can be changed.

Grab a record, feel its edges, its grooves, its texture.  Imagine the music it creates.  Consider your own present practices:

— what are the grooves that create music?  How can you nourish them?
— what are the ruts that you would like to get out of?  Consider ways you can change your present practices.  What are new grooves you could create?  What space might open up if you change a current habit?


God thank you for this life you given me.
I cherish the music you have allowed me to hear, as well as to create.
Forgive me for the ruts that increase the chaotic noise of the world.
Free me to live into grooves of grace that create beautiful music.
Music that sings of you.
In Christ, Amen.

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take, eat, remember, believe

Thou Shepherd of Israel, and mine
Charles Wesley, 1757

Thou Shepherd of Israel, and mine,
The joy and desire of my heart,
For closer communion I pine,
I long to reside where thou art:
The pasture I languish to find
Where all, who their Shepherd obey,
Are fed, on thy bosom reclined,
And screened from the heat of the day.

Ah! show me that happiest place,
The place of thy people’s abode,
Where saints in an ecstasy gaze,
And hang on a crucified God;
Thy love for a sinner declare,
Thy passion and death on the tree:
My spirit to Calvary bear,
To suffer and triumph with thee.

‘Tis there, with the lambs of thy flock,
There only, I covet to rest,
To lie at the foot of the rock,
Or rise to be hid in thy breast;
‘Tis there I would always abide,
And never a moment depart,
Concealed in the cleft of thy side,
Eternally held in thy heart.

— — —

This is the body of Christ, broken for you.

This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.

Take and eat.


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voices, together

Choose a reader to read the regular type, communal response in bold.

Brigid of Ireland
Brigid is believed to have been the daughter of a pagan Scottish king and a Christian Pictish slave.  Even as a child, she was known to have a generous spirit and a compassionate, tender heart and was drawn to help the poor, the hungry, and the cold.  Eventually Brigid’s father decided she must be married or taken into someone else’s household, because he could no longer afford to keep her (especially in light of her excessive giving to the poor, which he feared would be the ruin of him).  Brigid refused marriage and became a nun with seven other women.  At Kildare, she founded a double monastery for monks and nuns, assisted by a bishop.  The perpetual fire at the monastery became a symbol of its hospitality and constant, undying devotion to God and the poor.

O Lord, let my soul rise up to meet you
As the day rises to meet the sun.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.  Amen.

Come, let us bow down and bend the knee: let us kneel before the LORD our maker.
We are happy to be your children, O Lord: make us happier still to extend the table.


Psalm 1:1-3

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked:
nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful!
Their delight is in the law of the LORD:
and they meditate on his law day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither:
everything they do shall prosper.



Brigid of Ireland said, “I would like the angels of Heaven to be among us.  I would like an abundance of peace.  I would like full vessels of charity.  I would like rich treasures of mercy.  I would like cheerfulness to preside over all.  I would like Jesus to be present.”

We are happy to be your children, O Lord: make us happier still to extend the table.

Lord, help us to welcome every guest as if we were welcoming you, delighting in their presence and ready to learn what good news they bring to us.  Amen.

May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you:
wherever he may send you;
May he guide you through the wilderness:
protect you through the storm;
May he bring you home rejoicing:
at the wonders he has shown you;

May he bring you home rejoicing:
once again into our doors.

reading taken from Common Prayer: a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals

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Bearing fruit


The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
                                                                                          – Galatians 5:22-23

Look at the list of the fruit of the Spirit.
Take a few moments to consider each of these attributes.

Which one are you in need of this moment?

Cutting 'fruit'

Take a piece of paper and cut out a leaf (or a piece of fruit!).

Write the fruit of the Spirit on it that you are asking God to produce in you.

Say it aloud as you hang it on the tree.

Look at the tree and the fruit others have posted or will post.  Give thanks to God for these gifts of the Spirit.

Take a moment to bask in God’s presence.

On the tree


God, I long to know you more.
I worship you as Three in One – Father, Son, Spirit.

May my life take root deep in you, and may the leaves and fruit that grow bring shade, healing, and life to all.


In Christ, Amen.

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Light, heat, warmth

As you enter this space find a place to still yourself before the throne of God… whether standing, sitting, or kneeling.


Consider the candle flame, its warmth, its light.

Let this light illuminate your thoughts and this warmth draw out your burdens.  Perhaps you are in need of forgiveness or need to forgive.

Take as much time as needed.


When you feel led, write your prayer request or supplication, a name or a word that has meaning to you on a slip of paper, set it in the container —giving it to God.


Then light a votive candle as an ikon of your prayer.


Dispel my illusions, Jesus, that I might see the wisdom of your way.

May your light guide me always and give me strength.



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Seeking release

Life is busy.  Commitments pull us in many directions.  Responsibilities attempt to smother us.  We seek to make a living, to live.  To love, to give.  Yet so much seems to get in the way of what we are seeking.

What is it that has you preoccupied, worried, anxious?

Water is life


Take a cup, fill it with water.  Imagine the cleansing that water brings, the life it provides.  Take a tablet from the dish.  Feel its edges, its texture.  See it as a representation of all that has you worried and anxious.
Drop it in the water.  As the tablet dissolves, allow your worry to dissolve with it.   Give it to God and trust in Him.


“Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.”
—1 Peter 5:7

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?”

— Matthew 6:25

At the station


God thank you for this life you given me.
Receive my worries, my cares, my concerns.

I trust you today.  Help me trust you each day.

In Christ, Amen.

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