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Concordia College New York
Lenten Devotions | 2019

RETURN TO ME

JOEL 2:12

 

Reflecting on the theme "Return to Me," our devotional is a compilation of prayers and ponderings written by alumni, staff, faculty and friends of the College. Thank you for taking this Lenten journey with us.

“Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word.”
Matthew 8:8 (NRSV)

Human and humble. Both these words literally derive from a same word, meaning “of the earth.” All of us who are born of women have a 100% chance of going back to the dust from which we first came. Until Jesus interrupts human history with his triumphal second-coming, dust will be the destiny of all humans. Humble. Since our existence is fractured by sin, we are broken. Humble. But dust is not the final destination of those who are born-again in baptism. Under the sign of the Father, Son and Spirit, our divine worthiness is restored. Our hope now rises out of the dust. 

Few reminders of our mortality are as stark as Ash Wednesday. We walk from the altar wearing a sign of dust. Humble. But we are not humiliated, because Jesus Christ walks this cross-way with us. Standing close to all who confess with humility, Jesus hears the centurion exclaim, “Lord, I am not worthy.” Standing near to the vulnerable, Jesus hears their humility: “It is not written, ‘The Lord is closer to taller people,’ or ‘nearer to those who live on the higher hills.’ For it is written, ‘The Lord is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit’”(Augustine 354-430).

PRAYER / This Lent, Holy Spirit, live not only in our homes but in our hearts, making we who are crushed by sin alive in Christ to live in the Father’s house forever. Speak your word. Amen. 

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Rev. John A. Nunes, Ph.D. | President, Concordia College New York

“But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”
Luke 15:20 (NRSV)

Not all homecomings are easy. 

Home is a place of refuge and relief for most. For some, home is remembered as a place of uncertainty and anxiety.

Lent is a journey home. From the glorious heights of the Transfiguration to the ignominious hill outside the Holy City, Lent is a journey with our Lord as He makes all things new. Jesus sent from the Father, now making His return home. That return will come at the cost of His own blood. His unfathomable love for creation will demand He reconcile the fallen flesh to the Father. The return will leave His flesh marked with glorious scars that proclaim the cost the law demands.

The “return” of the prophet Joel draws us to the prodigal’s return home. There is fear in a return. Fear born of our sinful nature that knows our depravity and the punishment sin deserves. The prodigal cannot sneak home, slipping through the window to appear unannounced at the table. His return brings repentance, reconciliation, and restoration.

Such compassion is reserved for our Lord. He wells up with grace and mercy for His children, eternally desiring their return home. There is nothing to fear. He has gone home before us. He has taken the worst the law could give, quenched the wrath of the Father. There is no one left to accuse you. Fear has been swallowed up. Come home.

PRAYER / Merciful Father, stir up repentance in our hearts, that mindful of our sin we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, who has fulfilled the law and made all things new, preparing us to come home. Amen. 

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Rev. Bart Day | President and CEO, Lutheran Church Extension Fund

“We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf,”
Hebrews 6:19-20 (NRSV)

In life, we all deal with hardship or tragedy at one point or another. When this happens, it is easy to feel like our souls are unsteady with no sense of calm or stability. The Bible tells us that Jesus is the anchor for our soul. I once heard someone say that many tend to think of Jesus as the helicopter for our soul. When trouble comes, we often ask Him to lift us out of the storm and change our circumstances. 

When we think of Jesus as a helicopter, the Word reminds us that He has come to be our anchor instead. Rather than pulling us out of a difficult season, He is with us in the midst of it, offering the hope and peace only He can bring. Here’s the good news about anchors. An anchor does its best work where we cannot see it. While all we can see are the relentless wind and waves crashing over us, we have an anchor beneath the surface offering strength and stability within the storm. 

If our souls are anchored in Him, the hard times will still come. But by His grace, we will not be shaken. He will equip us to persevere through any hardship when we fix our eyes on Him, the only true remedy for a restless soul. When the storms come, return to Jesus. Remember that He is working on your behalf more than you will ever know. Allow Him to be your anchor.

PRAYER / Dear Jesus, during this time of Lent help us to trust in you and your goodness even in the midst of trouble. Refresh our hearts and remind us that your spirit is with us wherever we go. We are thankful for your presence in all seasons of life, your strength when we feel weary, and your unfailing love. Amen. 

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Lauren Hricko ‘17

“But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.” 

Luke 15:17-24 (NRSV) 

“Impulsive behavior can lead to long-term consequences...” Simple words of wisdom that my sainted father Edward shared with me when I was a young child. Edward was a plotter and a planner. Everything he did was measured, tempered, and covered with thought and wisdom. Although I loved, respected, and cherished my father, more often than not I acted on impulse instead of following the model of faithfulness that sat before me every night at the dinner table. How often did I have to explain “why” and “how” my impulsive behavior was not a good idea?! 

In many respects our lives run parallel to the Prodigal Son, both in our family life as well as our life of Faith. We push, chase, and run after impulsive thoughts and behaviors and then find ourselves distant from the very ones who love, care, and cherish us. We damage our relationships and we bring heartache to our Heavenly Father. But IF we truly parallel the Prodigal Son THEN we will arise from our self-created misery and come to the Heavenly Father and confess: “I have sinned against heaven and before you.” Through the Cross of Jesus Christ, the Heavenly Father runs to us...embraces us...and forgives us! Through the Cross of Christ the Heavenly Father proclaims: “For this my son was dead, and is alive again!” This reminds me of my sainted Father Edward who was always ready to forgive and gently restore me. May we be so ready to return to the Heavenly Father and each other. 

PRAYER / Heavenly Father, bring peace that calms my conscience and forgiveness that restores my soul. Help me to run to you that your waiting arms may embrace me through the Cross of Jesus Christ. And bless me that I may be so bold to seek forgiveness from those I wound in body and spirit, that relationships may be restored. Amen. 

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Rev. Dr. Jeffrey E. Skopak, D.Min. ‘88 | Senior Pastor, Grace Lutheran Church and School, Jacksonville, FL 

“Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.”
Psalm 51:13 (NRSV) 

Most Christians are familiar with part of Psalm 51, “Create in me a clean heart, O Lord…and uphold me with a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:10-12 ESV). It is a penitential song, confessing sin and hearing the Lord’s message of forgiveness. But as the late commentator Paul Harvey would say, “Now for the rest of the story.” 

It is true that our sin is ever before us and that we cannot avoid the accusing finger of the Law. As the Holy Spirit leads us to contrition, that contrition is not about blaming others but accepting our own brokenness. Above all, true contrition is not being sorry that we got caught like a kid with his or her hand in the cookie jar, but that we have sinned against the God who loves us and against Him alone. 

Our Father’s answer to our contrition is always the same. The answer came before we were formed in our mothers’ wombs. It was given before the foundation of the world and enacted in time and space as Jesus, the Eternal God made flesh, suffered for us at Calvary, entered death and rose on Easter. It is His “YES!!!,” His absolution, His embrace of the prodigal. 

Now for “the rest of the story” in the very next verse (v.13). Through His forgiven children, a world lost in sin is brought to Jesus. We merely say, “Behold the Lamb of God” and He does the work. Thanks be to God! 

PRAYER / Lord Jesus, you are the Way, the Truth and the Life who, through the Holy Spirit, draws me daily to yourself. Grant me such joy and confidence in you that I might look upon the world with your compassion and love and become your instrument in calling all to return to you, our Creator and Redeemer. Amen. 

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Rev. Dr. Daniel Lee Gard | President, Concordia College River Forest, IL

“This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Psalm 118:24 (NRSV)

Joel 2:12, the theme guiding this Lenten devotional series, invites the question “why do we leave the Lord in the first place?” The preceding verse, Joel 2:11 offers a clue“…the day of the Lord is great and very terrible, who can endure it?” In the prophet’s time, at the cross, and even today, sometimes it can feel easier to leave the Lord than to do the hard work of staying and returning: fasting, weeping, mourning. 

Today we also live in “great and very terrible” days of the Lord. Some days it seems close to impossible to find any peace. Throughout history, in the time of the prophet Joel, at the foot of the cross, and even today, we as God’s people ask ourselves “how can we endure it?” 

During this Lenten season, with challenges facing us in our homes, in our families, in our communities and in our world, let us consider both the old ways of returning to our Lord—through fasting, weeping and mourning—as well as through the seemingly simple but increasingly more challenging way in our current times of being still and listening and connecting with God’s word, each and every day. While we weep as we consider how many ways we and our world have strayed from our Lord, let us also seek opportunities for celebrating, rejoicing and praising as the psalmist commands us and remember that, as stated in Joel 2:13, “the Lord our God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

PRAYER / Heavenly Father, help us to remember to stay with you. And when we inevitably stray from you, help us to return to you, weeping and mourning our time apart from you and rejoicing and celebrating that this Lenten season and always, “weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen. 

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Cheryl G. Williams | CEO, Hudgins Williams Associates

“Rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”
Joel 2:13 (NRSV)

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent,” he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. 

Lent is the time hear that again and to repent, to consider how you have lived in accordance with God’s commandments, or better yet, how you haven’t. Lent is the time to remember that you are a child of Adam. The fact that Adam came from the ground was not the problem. God perfectly made his flesh from the ground, and then the woman from his side. The problem is that he sinned; he heeded the voice of his wife and ate the fruit. When he sinned so did you. When the judgment was placed on him “for dust you are and to dust you shall return” it was judgment against you. When that Word of the Lord hits your ears, you find the cause for repentance: your sin and impending death. And death is real. 

Repentance is not merely recognition of sin, or of sorrow, it is turning to Jesus and the grace He reveals. Sin is why people die. Christ is how people live. On Good Friday the Father was unrelenting against your sin; the judgment and wrath was put on His Son. Christ atoned for Adam’s sin and yours. All of it. By the work of Christ, Adam’s sin was forgiven, and so is yours. Through faith alone in Christ, your death is done and you have resurrected life forever with Him. The Lord your God is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love. Death is done.

PRAYER / Almighty God, grant Your unworthy servants Your grace, that in the hour of our death the adversary may not prevail against us, but that we may be found worthy of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

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The Rev. Benjamin Ball | Senior Pastor, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Hamel, IL

“A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.”
Mark 1:40-42 (NRSV)

The leper was out of options. Jesus was his only hope. Humbly, he knelt before Jesus, acknowledging that Jesus could choose—or not choose —to heal him. “I do choose,” Jesus said. Jesus spent his life choosing love in action. He chose to be humbled and come incarnate among us. He chose to heal those who came to him, whatever their ailment. He chose to die so that all could live with Him in paradise.

Today, God continues to say to us, “I choose you.” Our loving Father waits ever so patiently for us to return to Him. His greatest joy is when His beloved lost children come back to His presence. During this Lenten season, will you return to him with all your heart? Can Jesus’ answer to His Father be ours as well?

“Yes, Father, yes, most willingly

I’ll bear what You command Me,

My will conforms to Your decree,

I’ll do what You have asked Me.”

(LSB 438, A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth, st. 2)

Let us fast, weep, and mourn as we return to our God, for he is gracious and merciful. 

PRAYER / Dear Jesus, thank you for choosing us. All that we are and all that we hope to be comes from you. During this Lenten season, we humbly return to you. As you continue to choose us, by your grace help us also to choose love in all that we do that you may be glorified, with the Father and the Spirit, now and forever. Amen. 

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Dr. Jean Boehler  | College Organist, Concordia College New York

“And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”
Genesis 2:8 and 15 (NRSV)

The Bible describes God as being a gardener. This connects me deeply to our Creator on summer evenings while trimming a hedge, pulling out some weeds, and removing a wilted blossom or two in our garden before the sun sets. Contemplating the Bible while gardening has taught me a couple of keys to living a fulfilled life. Here are two of them:

Firstly, God himself works: he planted the garden of Eden. Also, he got the first human, Adam, to work in this garden before the entry of sin! Some of the unemployed youth I work with believe that work is a “curse” resulting from Adam and his wife, Eve, being disobedient to God. These youths want to get rich quick without working. But Genesis 2:15 proves that work is not a punishment: creating something of value, something beautiful, like a garden, simply forms part of a purposeful life. 

Secondly, working in a garden has taught me that no day and no action in life stand in isolation: every moment forms part of a chain of choice and consequence. As a student you may be living in the moment— wanting to make the most of student life. But instead of chasing a quick fix of superficial happiness, learning to appreciate daily tasks— no matter how mundane—leads to a deep-rooted sense of satisfaction. 

God is a gardener—and so are you! Create, care for and celebrate every aspect of your life, knowing that there is a Master Gardener to guide you with love and understanding, every step of the way.

PRAYER / Heavenly Father, thank You so much for teaching me to be the gardener of my own life, to understand that every seed I plant as I live today—whether it is a word I speak, an hour I study, or a smile I share—forms part of a rhythm of building a life that is ultimately aimed at glorifying YOU. Amen. 

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Reinhild Niebuhr | Founder, Young Africa Foundation | Pretoria, South Africa

“It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”
Deuteronomy 31:8 (NRSV)

Easier said than done! I believe with my whole heart that the Lord is with me, but “Do not be afraid”? “Do not be discouraged”? That’s a little harder. 

Three years ago, my life was great. I was married to my soulmate and serving in a position I loved. Then, on July 1, 2016, my husband was diagnosed with Frontotemporal Dementia and later with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). The doctor said the disease was progressive, and worse—terminal.

Do not be afraid? Do not be discouraged? How do I do that? I am watching the love of my life die a little bit every day. Every new loss or decline brings fear and discouragement. 

Do not be afraid, do not be discouraged. Moses said these words to Joshua right before Joshua was to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. They were afraid. They had heard that the residents of the land were giants. But they should have known better. They had spent forty years experiencing God’s provision in tangible ways. And yet, they were afraid.

I, like the Israelites, know better. I am facing my own giants, but the Lord has provided my entire life. He will provide even now, especially now. He goes with me and will never leave me. I will not be afraid.

PRAYER / Lord, help me to remember that you are always with me no matter what I am facing. You will never leave me even when I am afraid or discouraged. You go before me and will protect me from whatever may be ahead. Calm my fears and encourage me with your love. In Jesus’ name. Amen. 

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Dr. Martha L. Garmon  | Emeritus

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
John 1:5 (NRSV)

As a child I remember playing video game after video game until I beat the game. In search of victory I spent a lot of free time dedicated to this pursuit. Once achieved I’d put the game on the shelf, rarely to be played again. Then I’d shift my attention to something else or another video game. While fun, it never satisfied. While I accomplished beating the game, it didn’t make a difference in the bigger picture of life. It was simply a fun distraction which, over the years, added up to a lot of time lost. 

In life we are all looking for happiness, inner peace, and fulfillment. However, many times we search for these things in ways that provide short term highs but don’t ultimately satisfy the desires of our heart. We may even no longer be able to provide the ‘Why’ behind the ‘What we do’.

On this Lenten Journey we are called to understand the ‘Why’ behind the ‘What’ of our faith. To step away from the wells which haven’t satisfied and turn toward the source and summit of our faith: Jesus Christ. Jesus is the answer to our restless heart. To recall St. Augustine, “You have made us for yourself O God, and so our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Jesus wants us to live lives that are full of passion, purpose, and service, but he asks to be a part of our life and not just in the parts of our life.

PRAYER / Lord Jesus, help me to accept the challenges of life today as you accepted them. Help me to understand that love is more than a feeling, it’s a choice. Take hold of me with your love which knows no limits, meet me where I am at, and never let me go. Amen.

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Rev. Michael Eguino, MDiv. | Parochial Vicar, St. Elizabeth’s Church, NYC

“Whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” 
1 John 3:20 (NRSV) 

We live in a world which will always be imperfect no matter how hard we try to make it perfect. We often feel separated from others in life and relationships because we do not feel that we measure up and we don’t deserve our place alongside others. That includes our relationship with God, the one who made us. Herman Gockel in his devotional writing Greater Than Our Hearts reflected, “There are moments in our lives when we look into the secret chambers of our heart for evidence that we are God’s children—and we fail to find that evidence! Searching our souls for assurance of our salvation, we find assurance only of our sin. Our very heart condemns us, accuses us of innumerable transgressions, and finally confronts us with the crushing judgment: that we do not belong to God!” 

1 John 3 reminds us that though our heart and mind condemn us with endless accusations and self-deprecation, “God is greater than our heart and he knows all things.” In each of us God sees one of his own children. He sees our gifts and talents that He gave us. He sees our potential and our future. He sees His Son—the sacrifice and the resurrection for new life and hope that our God gives us. 

So let heart, soul and mind tell us that we are lost. It doesn’t matter… God is greater than our heart…He tells us we belong to Him! 

PRAYER / Spirit of God, as I encounter the days and hours of struggle and separation, help me hear your words of grace, hope and the assurance of a place in your family. Amen. 

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Rev. Dr. Rick Armstrong, LMFT | Executive Director, Lutheran Counseling Services Winter Park, FL

Onward, Christian soldiers! 
Marching as to war, 
With the cross of Jesus, 
Going on before. 

Sabine Baring-Gould, 1865 

Lent is a time of sacrifice, reflection and self-discipline. Jesus said to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Luke 9:23-25). How do we deny ourselves in a selfish world? It is to act as Christ did: not to only hear His words but to see Him in all that we do; it is to take the cross daily. 

Jesus urges us to accept the Gospel. He teaches us to know in suffering, there is light. To take up the cross means to follow Jesus not just by refusing to think of oneself but by suffering for the redemption of others. The educational process requires one to deny oneself and think critically. Selflessness and discipline are nourished at Concordia College New York, where reverence for God is cultivated. Through an educational journey, the campus community takes the cross daily as Christian soldiers in our fight against ignorance so that students can pursue lives of passion, purpose and service. 

PRAYER / Dear Jesus, help me to spread Thy fragrance everywhere I go. Flood my soul with Thy spirit and love. Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that all my life may only be a radiance of Thine. Shine through me and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel Thy presence in my soul. Let them look up and see no longer me but only Jesus. Stay with me and then I shall begin to shine as you shine, so to shine as to be a light to others. Amen. –St. Theresa of Calcutta 

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Nathalie Virgintino, Ph.D. ‘11 | Assistant Professor of English, Director of the Writing Center, Concordia College New York

“They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon’”
Luke 24:34 (NRSV)

I learned quickly that the woman beside me on a flight didn’t have much time for God: “I tried to be a Catholic, but it didn’t work for me. I’m okay being nothing.” 

An avalanche of conversation followed. As a senior director of marketing for a Fortune 150 company, she was seeking “more loyalists among my customers, repeat users of our product.” Somewhat shockingly, I heard the word this avowed atheist chose to describe what she was trying to create: “I want our customers to be… evangelists.” “An evangelist” she continued, “not only personally buys what my company sells but encourages others to make the same purchase also.” What product was this creator of evangelists peddling? Tobacco! 

How much more eager should we be to be evangelists for our “product,” not a mere earthly good—a carcinogen at that—but the resurrected Person, Jesus Christ? How can we be okay with those who claim to be nothing when because of Jesus: 

Foundations are shaken.
Dividing walls are broken through.
Self-righteousness is broken down.
Down-and-outers are raised up and brought in.
Strangers are welcomed.
Mercenary centurions are shown mercy.
Lost children are welcomed home.
Fractured communities discover new friendship.
Fragmented individuals are offered new forgiveness.
The dying are loved to new life. 

PRAYER / Into your hands we commit ourselves, risen Jesus. Thank you for bursting out of your tomb and into our lives, resurrecting our faith and making us, by the Spirit’s power, your evangelists. Amen. 

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Rev. John A. Nunes, Ph.D. | President, Concordia College New York

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