Ash Wednesday Reflection 2017

Standard

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.

As I Prepare to Preach on Pentecost Sunday

Standard

The wind is blowing a gentle breeze outside.  As I type these words I can hear its swooshing sound and see the trees outside my office sway.  Three Sundays ago the wind was blowing at 50 miles per hour and I was at home sick while my associate preached.  At that point I was a little bit sad Pentecost wasn’t then because God’s Spirit is breathe and God’s breathe is 50 miles per hour and more mighty.

As in answer to prayer the wind is still blowing today, albeit with much less force.

The wind blew my hair as I unlocked the doors of the church this morning.  I was reminded that the church is the content of the breath of God.  The Spirit is the breath but as the Spirit breathes, we are what it pulls in and then sends out.

In the same way that when I take a breath I am pulling in some weird mixture of Nitrogen, O2 and CO2 (among other things) and then breathing out a similar mixture, but with more CO2 than O2, the Spirit breathes in this weird mixture of holy and sinful people and then breathes those people out, but with more holiness than sin.

As I stepped in the door I turned to look at the two giant trees that grace our front lawn.  I was reminded that they also breathe in and breathe out only their breath is the reverse.  They give us more oxygen and through it more life.  We give them more carbon and through it more life.  They do our part.  We do ours.

I have always appreciated the trees for that very reason.  Without them, we have no life.

What I have not always appreciated is that my breath is just as valuable to them as they are to me.  Without my breath they die.  Without my gift they wither.

Today, on Pentecost Sunday, we remember that glorious day when God’s breathe blew over all creation.

In spiritual (Spirit-ual) worship we are breathed into God.  In benediction we are breathed back out to all creation.  We are breathed in sinful and breathed out holy.  However, we are not breathed out for our own benefit or own pleasure.  Holiness is not for the benefit of the saints, in the same way that my CO2 does nothing for me.  Holiness is for the benefit of the creation, for all creatures of our God and Kingdom.

Pentecost happens so that the saints may heal the hurting.

So that the saints can fix the broken.

So that the saints can love the unloved and unloveable.

So that the saints can reconcile the enemies.

So that the saints can comfort the afflicted (and yes, afflict the comfortable)

So that the saints can adore the ugly and entertain the lowly.

Pentecost happens so that a Holy people can redeem the world.

Happy Pentecost Everybody!

A Church Calendar Fanatic Comes to Grip With Mom’s Day

Standard

Mother’s Day was yesterday.  Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about it.  Despite my wife’s claim late Saturday night that I had not mentioned Mother’s Day once in the weeks leading up to it, I had bought some cards and presents for the leading ladies in my life.

My church did a bang up job too, giving every woman (not mom, but woman!) in the sanctuary a potted plant.  I was incredibly proud of our stewardship team because when they discussed Mother’s Day they were very mindful that we have wonderful and holy women in our congregation who are not mothers but who are just as valuable as the moms.  Also on their minds were those who have lost their mothers in the last year as well as those mother’s who have lost children.  These are the types of great questions that a people who worship The Holy Trinity ask.  They are also questions and concerns that I share every second Sunday of May.

But my concerns run a bit deeper.  I am a church calendar nut and have been for some time and Mother’s Day always lands right in the middle of a “trinity” of holy Sundays meant to cap off the first half of the church calendar year.  In fact, the month of May is an awkward month for Christians because most Mays there are three major Church holy-days (Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity Sundays), one Hallmark holiday (Mother’s Day) and one national holiday (Memorial Day).  How is a pastor in the Christian tradition supposed to juggle all these things?!

My gut response is to prioritize the church days.  The first two, Ascension and Pentecost, are huge and important events in the life of Jesus and in the church.  In fact if Jesus hadn’t ascended and the Spirit had not descended there wouldn’t even be a church!  Even more telling is that our “family friendly” church spent 1,900 years creating holidays and never once did it occur to them to create one for mom’s or dad’s.  This despite the fact that honoring your parents is one of the top ten commandments!  With that said the first Mother’s Day was held at a church but apparently founded to encourage mom’s to join together to work for peace.  (Source and source)

Be that as it may when Mother’s Day, or even Memorial Day, conflict with the holy-days, I give them lip service at the top of the service and then move on to the more important topics, like Ascension and Pentecost and Trinity.

However, some days there is no conflict.  When Mother’s Day and Pentecost overlap it is fun to talk about the Spirit as our nurturing Mother.  When Memorial Day and Ascension overlap it is really fun to talk about that life which we remember the most, Jesus’s life, which did not end but goes on forever.

Putting those clever pairings aside, I still have always found Mother’s Day just too problematic for a church.  There are dozens of problems whether they be liturgical (isn’t Pentecost more important?), theological (the Bible tells us to give orphans and widows priority) or just plain practical (we have some women who struggle with infertility).

But last week I read something that made all this a bit less complicated for me.  I was reading a fascinating little commentary on the book of Lamentations written by Soong-Chan Rah.  Rah doesn’t pull any punches when he compares the honest heartache of Old Testament Judea with the dishonest and fake triumphalism of modern Christianity.  At times his words are down right insensitive, especially to this white suburban evangelical pastor whose very existence runs contrary to the heart of a book like Lamentations.

Halfway through the book Rah writes a very poetic paragraph about his mother.  Here is what he says:

“My mother has lived through a very difficult set of life circumstances.  She endured a very difficult marriage.  For most of her married life, her husband was not around, resulting in her raising four kids on her own as an immigrant in a foreign land.  Her minimal English skills as a first generation immigrant meant that she took miminum-wage jobs (often two of them at a time) to keep her family together.  During one stretch, she worked two jobs: a day shift at an inner city carry out and the graveyard shift at an inner city nursing home.  She was working twenty hours  a day, six days a week.  Throughout all her trials, she never lost her faith.  To this day, even with her eyesight failing her, she faithfully reads chapter after chapter of Scripture.  She would wake up at dawn to pray for hours every day.  Several years ago, I noticed that her knee caps had split into several pieces from the many hours of prayer she spent kneeling.  When she kneels, her broken caps conform to the flat surface of the floor.  My deep disappointment with American evangelicalism is that stories like hers are deemed less worthy than the stories of the latest greatest, evangelical superstar with his megachurch.” (p. 61 in Prophetic Lament)

I read that paragraph at the end of my sermon yesterday.  I had some clever but ultimately stretched tie in to the sermon, something about how Rah’s mother has something to teach us about a relationship with the one who ascended into heaven.  But in the end I couldn’t not read about that mom on Mother’s Day because, well yes, a mom like that does have a lot to teach us about what the Christian life looks like.

Later in the day I was talking to my church board about holiness.  I asked for concrete examples of the holy life and they all mentioned people they knew who lived it out, but lived it in ways that are hard for words to describe.  But the stories of their lives describe it well.  I believe Rah’s mother is one such example.  And if we want to live out the theology formed on Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity Sundays, Rah’s mother might help us considerably in that endeavor.

I am sure there are thousands more mom’s just like her.  Maybe it isn’t so bad to take a Sunday out of the year to commemorate them.