At the Casket of a Newborn: A Lenten Reflection

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Yesterday for the second time in my life I stood over a casket that was only a couple feet long.  I had to be there.  The word “had” is such a modest word, designed to be over used and yet I use it here reluctantly and carefully.  I did indeed “have” to stand there.  Nothing external compelled me, only the internal bonds of friendship forged over years of shared experiences with the father of the infant who lay in the casket.  My friendship with Camden was so deep and so suddenly profound that I told many, “I couldn’t NOT be there.”  I had to come.

We arrived to the funeral forty five minutes early and walked into the sanctuary, which happens to be “ground zero” for my spirituality.  It is the sanctuary where I worshiped weekly for nine years during my youth.  It was the sanctuary where my friends and I played ridiculous night games.  It was the sanctuary where I spent hours in prayer and the sanctuary where I was ordained.  That sanctuary holds some profound mysteries.

It’s the season of Lent and so the sanctuary also held the colors and slogans of this time of the liturgical year.  The purple hue was everywhere.  A giant wooden cross, much longer than the casket, hovered over us on the platform.  Decorated cloths held pictures of crowns of thorns and nails with the words of Isaiah woven into them.  “He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities.”

And there right in the middle of it all, was the infant laying in a casket.  And here, right in the middle of my own Lenten journey, was the infant laying in a casket.

Ten short, but tortuously long days earlier her heart had stopped beating during delivery, sending the family and friends into a downward spiral of grief.  I personally read the news in a grocery store parking lot, where I sat in my car for a good ten minutes crying before mustering the strength to go into the store.

Ten days later here I was, standing in Lent, staring at a two foot long casket unable to keep myself even remotely composed.  I wanted to turn around, wipe the tears from my eyes, tell a joke or two and flee back to sunny Utah where I could bury myself back in the drudgery of daily ministry.

Yet as I said at the top of the post, I “had” to be there.  I had to stand there and look at it and cry because this casket is a profound piece of the Easter story that we tell and commemorate every year, even every Sunday.

As I sat there looking at it through tear blurred eyes, I could not escape from the fact that there is something desperately wrong with the world in which we live.  It is as if the casket was calling out, “Houston, we have a problem.  Heaven, we have a problem!”  And as I contemplated the mystery of the infant’s casket, I realized the problem it proclaims goes much deeper than human behavior.

In fact, this Lent I have been thinking a lot about the Galilean Pharisees of Jesus’ time, these people whose job it was to fix people’s behavior.  In the Gospel of Mark we see them partnered with the politicians, known as the Herodians.  They were strange bedfellows for sure, but they had one great thing in common, other than their mistrust of Jesus.  Both of them sought to build religious and political systems and structures to mitigate personal behavior in the hopes of fixing what is wrong with the world.

Then I thought about Jesus who wept at his friend Lazarus’ tomb.  Lazarus didn’t die because of human behavior.  He died because, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “the world has been subjected to futility.”

All of us, from every dot on the spectrum from sinner to saint, carry that futility with us in our bodies and every once in awhile that futility makes itself plainly evident, as it did for my friends on the delivery bed two weeks ago and as it did for my sister five years ago when my niece died of SIDS.  The Pharisees would have chalked the casket up to “secret sin.”  But we know the truth.  This infant did not die because of sin.  This baby died because of a world subjected to futility.

How ridiculously powerless we are in the face of that futility.  In fact, how absurdly powerless all of our pastors, all of our politicians, all of our churches and businesses and universities and clubs and committees and manuals and TV shows and pharmaceutical pills and self help books and rules and laws and systems and structures and so much more are when faced with the casket of an infant!

This Lent, at the casket of an infant, only the almighty God, maker of Heaven and Earth and Jesus Christ his son, savior of Heaven and Earth can break the chains of futility and unleash the tide of Resurrection.

Come oh Easter.

Come oh Christ.

Come oh God.

This world desperately needs you and only you.

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Photo courtesy of my friend Robin Wheeler.

What’s Pastor Kevin Watching: Beauty and the Best (And the Wonders of Stockholm Syndrome)

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Related imageThe animated classic “Beauty and the Beast” was released when I was 6 years old.  A relative gifted us a VHS copy the following Christmas, which we still have.  Being so young, I do not remember watching the movie for the first time, or the second, or the third.  All I know is that I had two sisters which means girlie cartoons were the norm for my childhood, though Gaston’s siege at the end of the movie was just enough to give my childhood imagination a few delusions of warrior grandeur!

As I grew up, the VHS lay dormant on our shelf for many years.  In college I managed to get my hands on a copy of the DVD release and watched it anew.  I was shocked at just how pitch perfect the animated tale really was.  By then I knew a bit more about what made a good movie great and Beauty and the Beast had it all.  The animation was gorgeous, even by today’s standards.  The plot points were perfectly paced.  The characters were strongly written.  The songs were charming and deep, particularly the title song which sang about the “tale as old as time.”  I particularly fell in love with the line, “Barely even friends, then somebody bends, unexpectedly.”  I wish I could write like that!

When my wife and I started dating we named that “our” song and a sextet of our friends sang it at our engagement and again at our wedding.  I let this happen despite knowing I was going to have to tolerate decades of jokes about how “truly a beast” I was.  Seriously, people write some new material!

Image result for beauty and the beastYet therein, lies the problem with the whole movie.  The beast is, well, a beast and, at least in the first act, he does some pretty beastly things.  He rages.  He roars.  He destroys.  He kidnaps.  He extorts.  This has led many to
ask the very appropriate question, “Is this movie actually about Stockholm Syndrome?”  Or is it about the power of love to transform the most vile of us?

Part of what elevates “Beauty and the Beast” to a “classic” is this wonderful debate.  Fiction is not supposed to answer but to ask.  In fact, fiction can begin the best conversations and debates in a way little else can.  And “Beauty and the Beast” wonderfully begins a great debate about the “power of love” versus “Stockholm Syndrome.”

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HISHE just released a satire mocking both ends of the debate I am describing.  Click here to watch!

On the one hand the movie seems to illustrate what Christianity has always taught, that love transforms people into the image of the beloved.  The Apostle Peter put it well when he said, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8)  Do not be fooled by the English word “covers.”  The Greek word Peter used does include the idea of erasing or getting rid of.  Love erases evil and brings out the best in the one loved, just as Belle did for the Beast.

However, I am certainly not sending my daughter off to date a beast, especially not one that just kidnapped me.  In fact, as far as logic is concerned, Belle’s father, Maurice is the most logical of anyone in the film.  Of course he is going to go get his daughter back and of course he is going to try to recruit help, even if that goes horribly wrong.  It is hard to imagine anyone managing to be any more composed in those moments.

So Beauty and the Beast reveals two conflicting truths we really want to hold together.  First, love can transform the most beastly.  Second, for heaven’s sake, don’t go near the beast!

Image result for beauty and the beast gastonBut then there is Gaston.  For me, the entire movie would not have worked without the Gaston character.  Here is the true beast, hiding in plain daylight.  Successful, handsome, strong and completely crazy.  My high school was full of Gastons.  The churches I have pastored and attended have all had their fair share.  These are the wolves in sheep’s clothing who are far more harmful than any ill tempered recluse living in the mountains.  A few of my high school friends went ahead and married the Gaston’s and they did it with their parents’ and society’s blessing.  Now, fifteen years later, they are telling tales on Facebook of their less than happy endings.

Those too, unfortunately, are a tale as old as time.  And it seems to me if we really want to have a conversation about beastliness we should probably start there, with the ones society has elevated to godhood and the ways in which we insist on sacrificing our children to them.  The beasts seldom are recluses off in some castle.  They really do walk among us and we create them by glorifying the wrong things in them.

And the way Beauty and the Beast illustrates that reality invites just further conversation and debate.  It truly is a classic!

 

Divine Appointments, Flying Hats and Cheesy Blog Post Titles

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Yesterday, we had one of those worship services where not much went according to plan.  The music team had to redo their set at the last minute.  I lost my lapel microphone.  While presenting a “Distinguished Service Award” to a lady in my congregation, I dropped the certificate and broke the beautiful frame I had bought for her.  Our attendance was low.  You know, one of those Sundays.

But then after church, we had our “Year End Meeting” where we celebrated the end of another fiscal year and all that we accomplished.  That went really well.

Around 1:45, as we were preparing to leave I walked into the middle of a room where children were playing “keep away” with a hat.  The hat randomly landed in my hands and I knew just what to do.  The wind was blowing at 20 miles per hour outside, so I charged into the parking lot with a group of kids in tow and threw the hat like a frisbee into the wind which carried it several meters out into our field.  The kids were yelling and giggling as they raced out after it.

Then I turned around to see a parked car behind me with the engine running.  The car was a generic, gray, four door sedan and I didn’t recognize it as belonging to any of our church people.   Without gazing too awkwardly I tried to get a good look at the driver but could only see that he was wearing a gray suit and was looking at a phone in his lap.

I went inside and peered back out.  The children were running in from the field with the retrieved hat.  The man sat in the car.  He looked lost.  So I walked towards his window.  As I did he turned the engine off and climbed out of his car.  He was younger than I had expected and definitely not one of our regular attenders.

“Do you need help finding anywhere?” I asked because he looked very uncomfortable and very lost.

“No, I think that this is maybe where I want to be.  Are your meetings going on right now?”

“Meetings” is one of those words in Utah that definitely indicates a Mormon.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said.  “We meet at 11 but we had a lunch meeting after our regular worship time today so we are all still here.”

“Well, I am LDS” he continued, “but I am curious about other faiths and religions and wanted to come to one of your meetings to see what it is about.”

I invited him into our building and we talked for a half hour as I gave him a tour, of both our facilities and of the Nazarene culture and polity.  He was full of questions about everything from worship and sacraments to pastors and missionaries to even hymns and choruses.  I managed to find out that he is a young, single realtor who still lives with his parents up on the hillside above our church.  He spoke about himself very cautiously, which led me to believe something else was going on.  I couldn’t put my finger on it and didn’t want to be too forward, asking something ridiculous like, “Why are you really here?”  So I stuck to the surface stuff.

In the end we exchanged phone numbers.  He all out guaranteed me that he was going to come to our church next Sunday and then drove away with one of our hymnals and a copy of one the Jesus films that he grabbed off of our bookshelf.

Things like this have happened so many times throughout my ministry that I know not to be too hopeful.  Awhile back I had a very similar experience with a Mormon teenager who was sitting in our front field crying after church one Sunday.  He said he was going to come to our church but we never saw him.  I regularly meet people of all religious affiliations and walks of life who downright promise me they will come to our church “this next Sunday, right at 11 o’clock.”  I never ask them to come but for some reason they always promise to anyway.  Then they never show up.  Even our city’s mayor has made those promises and has yet to fulfill them!

Yet yesterday as I watched him drive away, I couldn’t help but be filled with hope regardless.  As the day went on I found my mind racing with the exciting possibilities.

My hope is not shallow.  New church attenders are nice.  Sometimes they bring friends who stick around and that is nicer.  Sometimes they share awesome testimonies that are fun to brag about at District Assembly.  Sometimes they even buy into your church, heart, soul, mind and strength.  They not only start showing up but they start giving of their money and their time.  That is always really cool.

But none of those things is what I am hoping for.

My hope is that he and I will become friends.  I hope we can regularly meet for lunch or coffee.  I hope we can go see movies together.  I hope that our friendship spans decades and is not one where I lecture him about “true Christianity” while he asks for pastoral advice about love, marriage, family, finances and emotional health.  My hope is that as we meet and talk, that we will both be formed and shaped into the image of Christ.  My hope isn’t that I would “save” him but that as we form a true friendship God would save us both.

I have that hope often whenever these random encounters happen.  It has almost never worked out.  Most times I never see the person again.  Sometimes they become acquaintances whom I occasionally see at the grocery store.  Only two or three times have they turned into true friends.

But those two or three times are more than enough to keep me hoping.

A Pastor’s Rejection of Vision Sunday

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The following is a sermon/talk that I gave this morning on the first Sunday of our church’s fiscal year.  I hesitate to share it and yet at the same time feel called to more than I usually do.

Introduction

This is a hard Sunday for me.  Today is now the fifth time that I have begun a new fiscal year with a new fiscal budget, alongside a new “fiscal” board with a new “fiscal” dream.

I will go on record and say that I believe this is an important Sunday.  I believe it is a good thing once a year to give a “State of the Church” type speech where I try to sum up the last year and give some hope and direction for the New Year.  That is a healthy thing to do which is why I have done it on this Sunday for the last four years.  It has always gone well and despite what I am about to say, next year I will probably do it again.

But this year I don’t know what to say.  I have hopes and dreams for our congregation.  I have my lists of things we could do and do really well.  I also have lists of things we probably shouldn’t do.  So I have vision.  I have opinions.  I certainly have ideas by the thousands.  You all should know that about me by now.

However, over the last year I’ve discovered that God does not want me to be a visionary pastor.  I don’t know if I ever believed that but part of me pretended to because I knew some of you wanted a visionary pastor.  So this Sunday was my Sunday to pretend to do that so you wouldn’t hang me or drive me out of town.  This was my day to pretend to be a confident, self assured, visionary leader to help calm those of you who thought you wanted that.

Over the last year I have decided I am done with that and I am done even pretending it.  That happened in a few ways.

Paul and the Corinthians

First I reread Paul in 1st and 2nd Corinthians.  The Corinthians hated Paul because he wasn’t visionary enough.  He wasn’t tall, dark and handsome enough.  Tradition tells us he wasn’t a great public speaker.  He was short and stocky and maybe couldn’t see well.  He was the last person you would expect to spread the gospel across the Roman empire.  The Corinthians hated him for it.  They thought he wasn’t a “super” enough apostle.

Paul’s response to them was verses like 1 Cor. 1:27, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong.”  He repeats similar sentiments in 2 Corinthians 12:9 in what is my life verse, “[God] has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”

So I read Paul again this last year.

Two Types of Pastors

At the same time I also met with several visionary pastors and church planters.  These are people who drip charisma and have built some awesome institutions.  Several of them have seen a great amount of success by worldly standards.  They are chock full of ideas and “inspiration.”  But I always walked away from those conversations feeling empty.  I did not feel the Spirit there.

I have also met with several other pastors who are not successful by worldly standards.  Most of them pastor smaller churches.  One or two pastor large churches but those churches are not doing successful things by our world’s standards.  Those conversations were always seasoned with salt.  Those pastors were dripping with something that I can only call “holiness.”  I walked away wanting more of it.

As I began recognizing those two types of pastors I felt God was laying out two roads for me.  One was wide and easy and filled with success but I knew where it ended.  The other was a bit rockier and narrower and more difficult but it seemed to be the one Paul and Jesus walked.

Eugene Peterson

Then I read Eugene Peterson.  Some of you might remember a sermon from a few months ago where I told Peterson’s story about building a cathedral in Massachusetts.  For two years he cast this great vision for this awesome building out in a farm field.  It was great.  Their attendance went up during that time.  They raised the money and built the building.  The minute it was built the attendance and finances dwindled.  His denominational executive told him, “start building another building ASAP and they will all come back.”  Eugene Peterson declined that gracious offer to go into more debt on a bigger building that they did not need.  He knew that Christian leadership isn’t about vision casting and building buildings.  He repented and decided to just be a pastor.  Then he wrote ten books about it.  .  .

Jesus in the Gospel of Mark

I have also been memorizing Mark’s gospel over the last two months.  Mark is only 15 chapters and 8 verses long.  It is about half as long as Matthew and Luke.  3 of Mark’s 15 chapters, 1/5th of the book, is all about “apostolic leadership.”  For three chapters (8,9 and 10) Jesus constantly lectures his disciples about power and authority.  That is where we get some of our classics.

“Whoever wants to be first must be the very last.” (Mark 9:35).

“If anyone would come after me he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.  Whoever wants to save their life will lose it and whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34)

“Any who wants to be great among you must be your servant and anyone who wants to be first must be your slave.” (Mark 10:44)

My favorite is, “You know those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their high officials exercise authority over them.  NOT SO WITH YOU!” (Mark 10:42).

I am not sure “leadership” is even a New Testament concept.  To the extent it is, it is only in the form of good following.

Proverbs 29:18

But THEN there is this other verse from Proverbs.  It comes up all the time in leadership classes and seminars.  I have heard it quoted several times this year.  It is Proverbs 29:18, “Without vision the people perish.”

I heard someone quote it awhile back.  It was in the context of “be a visionary 21st century leader.  Come up with a vision statement and hold your people to it.  It’s your job as the leader!”  I was listening to this person and it finally occurred to me that there is no way the Bible says that, at least not in the context of, “without a 21st century vision statement and a leader to be firm and a little bit arrogant in holding the people to it, the people perish.”

So I found it and it turns out the King James Version says “vision” but many of the other translations use other words.  I think one uses, “prophecy” and another uses, “revelation.”  So I looked it up and in both Hebrew and Greek the word refers to the work of a prophet and is more closely associated with “wisdom” than with 21st century “vision.”  “Without prophetic wisdom the people perish.”

The prophets were not doing 21st century executive vision casting.  They were not getting focus groups together and asking a series of questions.  They were not distributing surveys and collating data.  They were not making everybody take personality and spiritual gift inventories and then leading discussions and doing SWOT analyses.

They were praying and they were fasting.  They were studying the Scriptures (which for them was just the first five books of the Bible).  Then they were walking among the people, eating the same food, watching the same plays, listening to the same songs.  They were and laughing with them over meals and crying with them over caskets.  Then they were holding the culture up alongside the Torah and saying, “here is where it matches and here is where it doesn’t and here is what God is thinking and going to do about it.”

They were casting vision but it was God’s vision revealed in the Scriptures and it was a lot more than just five words that comprise a slogan you can paint on your church foyer wall.  The vision of the prophets was an ongoing formational process.

Proverbs tells us, “without that ongoing work of the prophets the people perish.”

The prophets did exactly what I am trying to do week in and week out.  I am just trying to pray.  I am just trying to read the Scriptures humbly and accurately.  I am just trying to meet with you all for dinner or coffee or to play games or to watch movies.  I am just trying to find times to fast.  Then for twenty to thirty (sometimes forty) minutes on a Sunday I tell you about what I think God is doing and saying.  I look at your lives and I look at the world where we live and then I look at a particular Scripture passage and I offer my interpretation of what God might be saying and doing in our midst.  Then I say, “Go live it and we will get back together next week and try again.”

Every Sunday is vision Sunday.

Conclusion

About a month ago I was thinking about all this.  I was reading Proverbs, Corinthians, Eugene Peterson and others.  I was memorizing Mark and talking to other pastors.  And I was thinking about this Sunday and realized that I had nothing to say regarding 21st century big vision casting stuff.

Then I remembered a quote from a Methodist bishop named Will Willimon.  I love this quote.  He is talking about churches that complain about their young pastors being too biblical.  Willimon says, “Too biblical? To their credit, bright, young clergy realize that only by being biblical do they have anything significant to say.” (How Odd of God, p. 176)

I don’t have anything significant to say except by being biblical.  So I decided that this vision Sunday I would just turn to the lectionary Psalm, like I’ve done the last several Sundays and will do for several more Sundays.  Then after reading it and studying it, I would just offer it up to you as one more tiny piece of God’s vision for us.  Psalm 32 is a great Psalm for that and I hope you hear God’s vision in it.

Psalm 32:

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.
You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah
I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.
Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD.
Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

Ash Wednesday Reflection 2017

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Hey everybody.  Sorry this is a day late but I was unable to post this yesterday because the day got shorter than expected when I spent two hours running and then 1 hour trying and failing to make ashes for our Ash Wednesday service (more on that in the next few days).

But the following is a very cleaned up version of what I tried to share during the homily portion of our Ash Wednesday service last night.  I hope you enjoy it even if it is a day late!


 

The first time I observed Lent, it had nothing to do with Easter.  It was September of my Junior year of high school.  My youth pastor had awakened in me a desire to pursue a holy life and I wanted to work on becoming a better person.  So on August 31st I hatched a plan that for the 30 days of September I would give up television, movies, video games and secular music (which meant the Oldies station).  I would read at least three chapters of Scripture a day, compliment five people and do one act of service.  And I would keep a journal of it all for accountability’s sake.

So for the entire month of September, that is what I did.  I kept a yellow notebook journal with lists of every good deed, every compliment, every Scripture passage along with some written thoughts.  It was in my hands at all times.  People would ask about it but I would not tell them what it was because it was my secret.  Also, I knew even then the whole thing was pretty nerdy.  But the project itself went well.  I didn’t miss one compliment, performed 30 small acts of service and didn’t relapse to the television or the oldies station.

It was only a few months later, in late January, that I found out about Lent, the forty day period for fasting, discipline and prayer.  Since the yellow notebook project had worked so well I decided to do it again for the forty (actually forty six) days of Lent.  This time I used a red notebook and once again I didn’t miss a day, even the Sundays which are supposed to be “feast days.”

I repeated it again the next September and the next Lent after that.  I planned on doing it forever until the crazy, hectic schedule of college life put an end to it.  I have still celebrated Lent every year, just in less intricate ways.

As I have been thinking about that first September with that yellow journal, I have also been reading, “The Patient Ferment of the Early Church” by Alan Kreider which everyone really must read.  Kreider devotes a large section to the early church’s catechesis processes whereby everyday Roman pagans became tried and true and baptized Christians.  Kreider reminded me of what I have always known, that Lent was not originally conceived for the mature Christians.  Lent was more a part of the evangelism process than it was the discipleship process, though it certainly said a lot about discipleship.  Today Lent is something the mature, Super Christians do but originally it was designed for brand new, not yet baptized Christians who wanted to know more and be more like Jesus.  The forty days were intended to help these new, curious Christians figure out what Christianity was all about before they committed their lives to it by baptism.  In short, this forty day period of discipline, fasting and prayer was the means by which they were apprenticed into Christianity.

Over time each new Christian was expected to have a mature mentor and eventually those mentors began fasting during Lent as a way of journeying alongside and bearing with the new Christians.  Over time even those who were not mentoring new Christians began fasting during Lent as well so that they too could be with the new believers.

I don’t want you to miss the very profound point that all illustrates.  Even though Lent was not intended for them, the mature Christians commemorated it every year, not as a sign of their Christian maturity, but as a sign that they were willing to be weak to help the weak.  Once a year they wanted to pretend to be brand new Christians again.  They wanted to arrive at Resurrection Morning as if they were experiencing God’s grace for the very first time.  They were willing to “start over” as it were on their faith journey and become as children again, taking forty days to remember their sins and experience their weaknesses so that on Easter morning they could share more fully in the baptism of the new believers.

This is relevant for us because I have noticed that a funny thing happens as we mature in the faith.  As we get further and further away from our own baptism we begin to forget about grace.  The further we get from our “come to Jesus” moments, the more we forget the true nature of grace and the true meaning of our baptism.  Put another way, as we mature we become self righteous and proud, forgetting that we too were once wretched. Therefore, the ashes tonight are not signs of how mature our Christianity is, but signs that we want to remember our beginning, return to our roots and be humbled by our weaknesses again so that grace can grab hold of us anew on Easter morning.

For me, this means that when I receive the ashes tonight I am once again a junior in high school with all the awkwardness that comes with.  I am sitting again in my room on a hot August night, facing my own weaknesses, ashamed of own my sin and humbled by my own inadequacies.  Once more I am 17 years old and feeling the weight of holiness’ call and not quite sure what to do about it.  So I fast a few unhelpful practices, vow to commit a few helpful ones and take up a yellow journal, all so that I can work out my own salvation because, after all, it is God who is at work in me to will and to act according to God’s wonderful purposes.  And, as I did so many years ago, I again trust only God to deliver me to a grace filled Easter morning.

A Sermon Somewhere: On February, The Perfectly Adequate Month

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Long time followers of this blog know that I am not a huge fan of January.  Actually, now that I think of it, they probably don’t.  I haven’t yet mentioned my distaste for the cold, cerebral 31 days that try to pass off as a legitimate month named January.

Let me try again.  .  .

Long time and new followers of this blog might be surprised to know that I am not a huge fan of January.  It is cold, bleak and miserable and it seems all the more so because it follows the festivities of the Holidays.  December gives us Christmas lights and candy.  January gives us obesity and failed New Year’s resolutions.  January is also the month most Starbucks finally run out of the Pumpkin Spice Latte syrup, so January has that against it too.

With that said, over the last two weeks I have watched an entire foot of snow melt off of my lawn.  The temperatures have risen to above 50 degrees.  The sun has come out and the days are getting longer.

I was thinking about all this yesterday and it suddenly occurred to me that February, unlike its predecessor, is a perfectly adequate month.

For one, the Roman Emperors, Julius and Augustus, both stole days from February and added them to their namesake months.  This makes February the abused and bullied underdog.  And everybody loves a good underdog.

Boy did February get its revenge.

First, February added one day to its calendar every four years just to throw everyone off.

Then February created a holiday for groundhog’s.  Why you ask?  So that February could taunt people with the hope of Spring long before Spring actually arrived.  It was brilliant.

Valentine’s day is an adequate enough holiday too.  It celebrates.  .  .candy hearts.  .  .I think?  Still, everybody likes chocolate and sugar.  They certainly beat the hot dogs typically associated with July and August.

February also has “President’s Day” which is a little bit superfluous given the excess of patriotic holidays but still, a free Monday off from school to go skiing on the first of the Spring powder isn’t all bad.

And let’s not forget that after a bleak, festivity less January, February gives everyone one last taste of Autumn by holding an epic football match played in front of 150 million people complete with ridiculous commercials (which rival the absurdity of Christmas ones) and a half time concert with fireworks stolen right from your July celebrations.  Take that Julius!

But then to top it all off, February also was the month both my children were born.  Oh and my father, without whom I wouldn’t be alive.  In fact, my children are probably why I suddenly remembered that February exists instead of doing what I used to do, which was tell everybody “It’s still January” for 28 extra days.

With all that said, I think it is pretty clear that February is like Liam Neeson in Taken or Mel Gibson in Payback.  The month was down but it wasn’t out and boy did it bring out the groundhogs, footballs, candy hearts and baby children to exact its brutal revenge!

And everybody loves a good comeback revenge story.

I’m not sure if you agree with me or not but either way, I think we can all agree there has to be a sermon in this month somewhere or probably exactly four of them since February can’t have 5 Sundays, unless it is a leap year.

Yet One More Reason Why Preaching (And Coaching) Are a Fools’ Errand

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A few years ago I was coaching Cross Country.  We were doing one of those workouts that required my athletes to work hard the entire workout.  To those of you not trained in distance running, most workouts require runner’s to start slow and build up.  But this wasn’t one of them.  I wanted them to work hard the whole time.  And they knew it.

Yet they were dogging it.  We were doing repeats and their times were not anywhere near what they were supposed to be.

Then the last repeat came and, because they knew it was the last one, finally ran faster than I had even wanted them too.  They crossed the line with these big grins on their faces as if they had done something special by running so fast for 1 repeat.

I was irate.  They knew they were supposed to be running that hard the whole workout and yet they lounged around and waited for the last one to suddenly run.  YET THEY WERE PROUD OF THEMSELVES?!?!?!

So I let them have it.  To this day I am not sure if I should have or not but that doesn’t change the fact I did.

I preached one of my best, most passionate sermons.  I explained to them that they had set great goals for the year.  I clarified over and over that I believed in their goals.  I emphasized that I wanted nothing more than to see them succeed.  Then I let them know that lazy workouts would destroy all of that.  There was no reason to dog the repeats until the last one other than apathy and apathy has no place in sports!  I came close to repeating the Apostle Paul in Corinthians, “And you are proud?!  Should you not be ashamed?!”

They rolled their eyes at me and then half jogged, half walked a cool down back to the school.

All but one of them.  My hardest worker, a young, energetic and goofy kid aptly named “Timmy” ran next to me the whole way back.

“I am sorry, coach!” he said over and over.  “I didn’t mean to slack off.  I really try so hard to do what you say.  I hope you are not too mad and I promise that I will do better next time.”

His sincerity was both admirable and humorous.  Timmy’s workout had been incredible that day.  He had nothing to be sorry about.  I was proud of him almost always and super proud of him that day.  He had worked hard while the upperclassmen slacked off and that is not easy to do.

Don’t miss the irony:  My lecture had gone completely ignored except by the one person who hadn’t even needed to hear it.

That is an irony I face almost every Sunday.  After a few songs, an offering and some announcements, I get up for 20 to 30 minutes and, borrowing from Moses in Deuteronomy 30:19 “Set before them life and death, blessings and curses.”  Then I urge my small congregation to,  “Now choose life!  That you may live.”

Then the people who have all ready chosen life long ago and have walked a better holiness than I yet have, tell me, “You know Pastor, you are right.  I need to do better.”

And those who I am the most unsure about, whose lives spew forth the darkness, roll their eyes and say, “Yeah, whatever,” and look back down at their phones.

And I am not complaining about this.  I have learned that these types of ironies keep me incredibly humble.  Here I am setting the table of life and death as carefully as I know how.  Then I present it to the people and no matter how hard I try, those all ready alive look at it and feel guilty.  Then the dead look at it and feel nothing, shrugging their shoulders.

But I’m just the waiter, discharging the duty ascribed to me by the master chef.  If I was the chef I might be a bit more offended but I am not.  I am just the humble servant who, to be honest, hopes more Sundays than not my sermon will be completely forgotten by Tuesday.  I would rather they forget my paltry words and live a life worthy of the gospel than the other way around.

So I have set the table.  I have scattered the word and that is what God requires and what God will reward.

I think Jesus even told a parable about this.  A farmer went out to sow his seeds.  .  .