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.

Why Lent? Why Fast? Part 2: Spending Money

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There is a delightful story in the gospels about the Pharisees trying to trap Jesus with a question about taxes.  (See Matth. 22:15-22)  The question sounds deceptively simple, “Should we pay taxes?” but underlying it is a layers of historical and emotional nuance.

Still, Jesus simply tosses them a coin and says, “Whose image is on the coin?”  They say, “Caesar” and Jesus replies, “Then give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and then give to God that which belongs to God.”

Jesus’ answer is much more meaningful than a first glance might tell.  After all Caesar’s image was on all the money, not just the taxes and God’s image is written on all our bodies.  By referring to the imago Caesar, Jesus was also referring to the Imago Dei (image of God).  He was making a statement that metal coins (or even paper money) are the currency of the worldly kingdoms and should just be thrown back to the world.  In turn, our bodies are the currency of God’s kingdom.

Caesar’s image isn’t on our money today.  We have our great Presidents for that.  And in fact our money even gives a nice little shout out to God in the phrase, “In God We Trust.”  But I still wonder if money is one of those things the kingdoms of this world use to capture and enslave us to sin.  For this reason I am always incredibly inspired by Christians who truly have sold all they have and given it to the poor and chosen to live a very modest, almost beggar’s life.  I have met a few and I envy them most days.

Now I live in a suburb of a major metropolitan area.  Our suburb is know for having the nicest indoor mall around and I have it on good authority that 1.3 billion dollars in retail sales happen every year here.  Some weeks I think that my family supports at least half that amount!

A year ago I lived in a small rural town with almost no economy and still some temptation to spend money foolishly.  Since moving here that temptation has quadrupled!  A year ago the best grocery store was 20 miles away and grocery shopping could be a 2 hour event.  Now we have one just down the street and it is even home to a Starbucks!  If we forget to thaw some meat for dinner, we can now just order a pizza.  The mall has free indoor playgrounds and toys for my kids so I find myself going in there and window shopping once a week.  There is the Home Depot and Lowe’s which sell the coolest gadgets for home improvement.  We have fancier upscale restaurants as well as fast food.  And the Wal-Marts and Targets sell anything else we might need.  But if I am still too lazy to leave my house, I can always open the Google Play app and buy some movies, TV shows or music.  And all it takes is a couple of clicks.

For this reason I gave up spending money for Lent this year.  The stated goal was to, “Not spend money on myself by myself.”  I hesitated to do it, not for any spiritual reason, but because the words, “on myself, by myself” were incredibly vague and I don’t think vague goals succeed.  However, this fast has actually proven the most enlightening.

The fast means I have to stop and think before every purchase I make.  I ask myself the question, “Why am I really spending this money and who am I spending it on?”  A few times this Lent I have opened up the Google Play store, only to realize, “there is nothing here I can purchase or even need to purchase right now.”  At the beginning of Lent, I went to buy a shirt at Costco only to realize that is definitely spending money on myself.  I have walked into certain stores, only to realize there was no reason for me to be there.  I have driven past many a Starbucks and thought, “I have a moment to buy a Latte” and then realized, “Nuts!  That violates both the coffee fast and the spending money fast.”

I wouldn’t say I long or even desire to spend money.  I do not have a hoarder problem, I don’t think.  But I do desire some of the things of this world that only money can buy.  I desire the convenience of fast food, the enjoyment of movies, and the freedom that comes when you realize, “I totally have the money to pay for this!”  Sometimes I just enjoy the freedom of walking into a hardware or electronics store and looking around feeling like I belong there and that these products on the wall are the true life givers.

Of course they are not.  And of course after a month of not spending money during Lent, I realize that there is very little I even need to be spending money on, at least for myself.  I have done just fine without the shirt, the movie, the game, the convenient fast food and the latte.  No, I take that back.  I miss the Lattes!

But the most profound thing that happened this Lent was at a conference a couple weeks ago.  During the dinner break, I watched my friends and colleagues pair off and leave, only to realize that by the terms of my fast, someone had to invite me out to eat or else I would have to go hungry.  I spent the last half hour of the session praying I would be able to find a dinner partner and coming to grips with the reality that my fast meant I would have to starve.  There was a certain painful loneliness to that but in the end I grew desperate enough to accept the invitation to dinner from someone I would never have otherwise joined.  Wee had a wonderful and delightful conversation over pitas.  It was an inspiring conversation I would have missed if I had just gone out to eat by myself.  And in the end he even paid for the meal!

I would like to think that conversation with an unknown ally and friend was the true currency of God’s kingdom.

Come oh Easter!

 

Why Lent? Why Fast? Part 1: Coffee

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In 1 Corinthians 7, the Apostle Paul engages us in a fascinating discussion about marriage and celibacy as they relate to our new standing in Christ.  Towards the end of his remarks on this issue he suddenly expands his horizons from marriage to all of our relationships.  He says in verse 31, Those who use the world should be like people who aren’t preoccupied with it, because this world in its present form is passing away.

One of the reasons why we fast, especially during the season of Lent, is because we recognize that the things of this world have a strange way of capturing our preoccupations.  When living in the present world we are seemingly drawn to unhealthy obsessions with otherwise healthy or neutral objects.  This happens with our food consumption, our clothing choices, our television shows, our music and even our sleeping habits.  Lent is that time when we revisit our preoccupations and loosen the ties that bind us to them in order to be more free for the service of God and for the new world that is coming.

Therefore the most powerful moments of Lent always happen right before Ash Wednesday.  In the weeks and months leading up to the imposition of ashes, I find myself revisiting my habits, my routines, my comforts and my choices, praying about what God might have me surrender.  As I do this, I am mindful of the words of a much wiser friend who once told me, “The thing you think you can’t live without is that which you should give up for Lent.”

I didn’t have to pray long to figure out what it was this year.  It came about on Ash Wednesday morning I pulled myself from my bed, dragged myself to my coffee pot and stared longingly at it while I toasted a bagel.  I “freed myself” from my morning cup of joe.  .  .and my second breakfast coffee too.  .  .and my nightly latte.  .  .and my mid afternoon stovetop espresso.  .  .and.  .  .nope that’s about it.

I am joking of course.  I only drink a morning cup every morning, with an afternoon espresso every other day or so.  Still, those cups of coffee and espresso were the highlight of any given day.  My morning routine was centered around eating a bagel, drinking coffee and reading articles and books.  And after a run in the winter cold, coming home to a warm blanket and a cup of espresso was my little slice of heaven, a slice I have sorely missed after some cold runs these last weeks.

You see, we joke around a lot about coffee in Christianity.  I have said before that coffee is a

All my friends are like.  .  .

fruit of the spirit, that there is no virtue outside of coffee, that coffee is God’s way of saying, “I love you” and the like.  Coffee has become a symbol of faith, right up there with the cross
.  In fact, I realized awhile back that pastors used to go to coffee shops to make connections with “non church” people.  Now we go to coffee shops to connect with the pastor down the street.  If you don’t believe me, walk into the nearest coffee shop and yell, “Hey Pastor!”  I bet half the heads will look up expectantly.  And when I told my Christian and pastor friends that I was giving up coffee for Lent, I was greeted with a half hearted skepticism.  As one of my esteemed colleagues noted, “I love my job way too much to give up coffee for Lent.”  He may be right.

However, last January I realized that lying behind my love of everything black, dark and bold, was an unhealthy preoccupation with this present world.  This preoccupation wasn’t just mental.  It manifested itself in physical ways.  It turns out caffeine withdrawal is a real thing, and a painful one at that.  The first three days I had a massive migraine.  The next week my legs were super tight during runs and I experienc
ed low threshold but constant spasms when  I wasn’t running.  My energy level crashed to the point where I took afternoon naps whether I intended to or not.  My diet and hunger were thrown way off.  It turns out that my body was quite preoccupied with the black liquid gold.  As the Apostle might put it, “My whole spirit, mind, body and soul were in love with coffee.”  And when I denied it the caffeine, my whole spirit went crazy.

This got me to thinking about what would happen if I “freed myself” from Jesus.  What would that look like?  Would it have that much an effect on my spirit, on my body, on my mind, on my routine?  Would it throw everything in disarray and cause sleepless evenings of twitching muscles?  Is my faith that important to me and that much a part of me?  I think probably so.  I am getting leg twitches just thinking about it.

Be that as it may, another reason we fast for Lent is so that our fasting can turn into feasting on Easter morning.  And trust me, when I yank myself out of bed at 5:30am on Resurrection Sunday and sip that first sip, the coffee will be a reminder for me that a new world is coming, a world full of health and energy and vitality and devoid of death and destruction.

I can only wait and here is one last meme!

 

 

 

My Ash Wednesday Homily

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I plan on saying something similar to this during Ash Wednesday tonight.  Hope those of you who are not there will still enjoy it.

I love Joel.  I love that it is one of a few books in the Bible that has its own holiday in Ash Wednesday.  Sure we Joel shares the ashes with Genesis 3 and Is. 58 but don’t be fooled.  This holy day is all about Joel.

There are a few things I love about Joel.

For one, I love how short and vague the book is.  It is only 3 chapters, snuggled there towards the end of your Old Testaments between Hosea and Amos. It’s about an army or an army of locusts or maybe just locusts.  Who knows?  Regardless it is quite apparent that Israel’s got a problem.  This army is destroying everything.  I love the line in 2:3 that says everything in front of them is the garden of Eden and everything behind them is wasteland.  I know some people like that (just kidding).

There aren’t any easy answers to the problem.  There doesn’t seem to be some Wal-Mart pesticide they can spray around the crops.  They don’t seem to have enough soldiers in the army to actually go to war.  It’s bad.  It is a bitter day, a dark day.  They didn’t know the way out.  Our garden is about to become wasteland and there is nothing we can do about it.

Another thing I love about Joel is that Joel is one of few of the prophets to not play a blame game.  There is no announcement of judgment or criticism.  Joel doesn’t point the finger at any particular group and say, “this is your fault.”  It might be implied that some sinfulness is to blame.  The others certainly go that way.  But Joel doesn’t go that way, at least explicitly.  Joel seems to be more concerned about the future than the past.

And Joel’s forward looking solution (if it can be called that) is this, “let’s return to God because God is gracious and compassionate.” (2:13)  I don’t know how to solve the problem but I know the problem solver.  Let’s give him a call.  Let’s get him in here and see if he might help us.  Let’s return to God.  Let’s get the whole assembly together from the young to the old.  Let’s postpone the weddings and get the pregnant moms out of their hospital beds and let us fast and let us pray and see what God might do.

The next thing I love about Joel is the open ended question right there in the heart of chapter 2:14, “who knows?  The Lord might have a change of heart and leave a blessing behind.”  Contrast that with the army that leaves a wasteland behind.  If we go to God and if we plead and pray and beg and fast then God just might relent and bless our socks off.

This is the movement of Lent.  The other 310 days out of the year we seem to collect horrible problems without easy solutions.

I think of the movie Lethal Weapon 4.  Mel Gibson and Danny Glover begin the movie by going out fishing.  As 90s action movies go, they end up getting in a shootout with the Chinese mafia.  Mel Gibson goes home to his wife and he is all banged up and she says, “You were just going fishing!  Do you go looking for trouble?”

And Mel Gibson says, “No, trouble knows right where to find me.”

I can relate.  Trouble’s got my number.  I have problems.  My problems got problems.  Most of them are my fault.  A few aren’t.  But none of them, not one of them are easy to solve.  Like all of you I am a victim of my own personality which brings it with bad attitudes and bad choices but we also have to deal with each other’s bad attitudes and bad choices.  And most days the weight of my own helplessness is too heavy to bear.  I bring this up because I think you all might be able to relate as well.  We are victims of our own dumbness and we can’t help ourselves and we can’t save ourselves.  There is no bootstrap tough enough to pull ourselves up by.

So 310 days out of the year I have problems without solutions.  I tear my hair out trying to find a way that I can just look at myself in the mirror with some dignity.  I try solutions and they fail miserably.  I brainstorm new ideas and people laugh at them.  I try to reconcile and end up sounding more bitter.  .  .and being more bitter too.  I have problems and I don’t know the answers.

But I know the great problem solver.  I know the great redeemer.  I know the great forgiver.  On Ash Wednesday, this special day, as we look back at 310 days of sinfulness and the trouble and problems it causes, maybe we need to hear Joel again, “Return to the Lord your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive.   Who knows whether he will have a change of heart and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?”

Who knows?  Maybe the army will turn back or even be overcome?  Who knows?  Maybe those locusts will all die?

Who knows? Maybe one day your problems won’t have problems.  They will have solutions!

Who knows?  Maybe one day there will be reconciliation and forgiveness between you and those you hurt?

Who knows?  Maybe one day about six and a half weeks from now there will a glorious and new morning where Jesus rises from the dead to proclaim forgiveness, to be our God and to leave a blessing of eternal life behind?

Who knows?  Maybe there will be a better day, a newer day, a glorious day we call salvation where we will be God’s people again!

I would welcome you tonight to wait for that new day by receiving the ashes and eating the Eucharist meal.  The ashes are a reminder that without Christ we are dust and will return to dust.  We wear them boldly but not proudly.  We are not proud of our own sin and our helplessness but we boldly proclaim that our sinfulness is not the end of the story.