Ash Wednesday Homily

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Hey everybody, sorry this is a couple days late but I wanted to share with you what I shared with my congregation on Wednesday.

One of the more valuable lessons I’ve learned in life came from my high school youth pastor.  I can’t remember the context or the setting but I remember that one day he explained to us that we had never and probably would never experience hunger.

Now I was a growing teenage boy who was skinnier than your average stick and who ran Cross Country and Track.  I lived my life under a constant state of hunger and so I immediately begged to disagree.

But then he explained to us the process of fasting.  When one fasts food entirely they go through various stages of discomfort but none of that discomfort is truly “hunger.”

The first stage starts around 10am the morning the fast began.  If you awaken and don’t eat breakfast at your usual time, your stomach eventually figures it out.  After waiting a couple hours it sends signals to your brain that get translated not as pain but as “indigestion” or a small discomfort sometimes signaled by stomach groans.  It does this for a couple reasons.  First, at this point your stomach only has acid in it because a well regulated body knows when to expect food and dumps a bit more digestive acid into your stomach to prepare.  If this acid has nothing to digest it makes you feel uncomfortable.  Second, your body is expecting sugar to dump into your blood stream.  If it doesn’t have the usual dose of it, it sends a very early warning signal to your brain.  People call that warning signal, “hunger” but it is not.

Shortly after this early warning sign, some people might start shaking.  The shakes occur because your blood stream does not have the sugars it expected and didn’t yet know it was supposed to break into your fat reserves to find it.  At this point many people will add an adjective to their hunger and say, “I am so hungry” and the more dramatic will say, “I am starving.”  Yet at this point they are neither hungry nor starving, just a bit shaky while your body breaks down the fat and dumps its sugar into your blood stream.

In fact, the third thing that happens is your body eventually figures out you are not going to feed it and it begins to break into your fat reserves to find the necessary sugars it needs to continue your daily activities.  At this point your stomach stops growling, the shaking stops and suddenly you completely forget that you are fasting.

Day two works much like day one.  Around breakfast, lunch and dinner you feel a little bit uncomfortable.  You get episodes of shakiness that soon resolve themselves and then your body finds the necessary sugars in your fat stores to keep going.

By day 7 of the fast, most bodies have recalibrated themselves and the person fasting reaches a new equilibrium where they do not feel hungry or shaky at all.  This equilibrium can last for quite some time, depending on how much fat you have stored in your body.  Most people can survive and feel just fine for 30-40 days.

When the fat stores are gone is when true hunger begins.  Like most of you I have never felt this sensation but from what I understand it is debilitating and painful.  True hunger begins when your body does not have the nutrients or the calories it needs to sustain your lifestyle.  It begins by shutting your body down for longer periods of time.  You sleep for 12 hours a day and take long naps.  It gets worse when your body begins to eat your muscles to find the fat stores.  As it digs into your muscles, you experience awful spasms accompanied by jolts of pain every time you move.  If you can manage to move, you become dizzy and disoriented.  At this time, your nails become brittle and begin to break off of your fingers.  The same goes for your toes.

After your body is done eating your muscles, it starts in on your organs and bones, causing massive and extreme internal pain.  Eventually one of those organs will fail resulting in death by starvation.

When you hear Jesus say, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” that is the type of pain, discomfort, fatigue and longing for calories that he describes.

Jesus is not saying, “Blessed are those who get a little bit uncomfortable with the sin in their lives and the evil in the world.”

Jesus is not saying, “Blessed are those who get a little bit sad because someone said something mean.”

And he is not saying, “Blessed are those who are saddened by the amount of unsaved people or who feel just a little bit guilty about the sinfulness in their own lives.”

He is saying, “Blessed those who long so much for righteousness, who long so much for the world to become a better place, who want the sin and the evil in the world to go away that they hurt and they ache and they get dizzy over it.”

I am not advocating anorexia today and I am not advocating a type of “spiritual anorexia” where Christians remain in a constant state of bawling, crying and feeling guilty all the time.

But I am trying to remind you that unrighteousness and evil is a big deal.  The things we do that hurt others, or hurt our planet or violate the ethos of a loving God are severe.  The things that go wrong are worth hurting over and crying over and groaning those groans too deep for words.

This is why we ask you to suffer with Christ during Lent.  This is why we ask you to give up something you like for 40 days.  I would hope that you picked that “something” well.  I would hope it is something you are going to dearly miss on a daily basis so that when you long for it, you can remind yourself that is what it means to hunger and thirst for righteousness.  I hope it hurts you just a little bit so you can be reminded of how much Christ hurt over the awfulness of our world.

But we also ask you to begin this journey knowing that Easter is coming where the other half of the beatitude will come true.  For those of us who ache, long and hurt for the kingdom of God, Easter is that morning where God says, “Let them be filled.”  For those of us who are willing to hurt over the kingdom of God, to cry the tears that need to be cried, to suffer under the agony of a fast, please know that a blessing is coming called Easter morning, where we are reminded that our suffering only last for a night but joy comes in the morning.

And in the Easter season you will get to feast for 50 days that which you only fasted for 40 so that we can remind ourselves that the awfulness of our world is passing away so that God’s righteousness may reign.

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Celebrating Easter in Hyrule and Eden (UT)

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We are now counting down the days the end of the most wonderful season of the liturgical calendar year.  Now, I know, you all think Advent is the most wonderful season of the liturgical calendar year.  But we all love Advent for all the wrong reasons.  Advent is meant to be somber.  We force it to be festive, prolonging the 12 days of Christmas into 30+.

But the fifty days of Easter is and always was meant to be all festivity.  This is why as I have fasted the 40 days of Lent I have come to realize the Lenten cycle isn’t over until you have feasted the 50 days of Easter.

And I have certainly been feasting over the last 48 days!  It has been Easter in my life this past month and a half.  I have tried to enjoy and celebrate the Resurrection, Restoration and Redemption every moment.

Image result for hyruleThe first way I have done this is by playing Zelda.  Many of you know that I fast video games during Lent so on day 2 of the Easter season I began my feasting by dusting off my old copy of “Twilight Princess” and putting it in my aging Wii so that I could waste time riding across Hyrule, collecting gadgets and solving puzzles.

It goes without saying to you who have played them that the Zelda games are unlike any other video games.  The aesthetic and gameplay are incredible.  Even the darkest of Zelda games are still pretty lighthearted and cartoonish.   The graphics are incredibly beautiful, as is the music.

 

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Despite her awkward appearance the true “Twilight Princess” has one of the best stories in all Zelda.

But more than all that, the characters are diverse.  They come in all shapes and sizes and styles of clothing.  Most of them are downright weird.  This is probably because of Zelda’s Japanese origins but I love the characters nonetheless.  They resemble some of the weird people I know, many of whom have attended churches I pastor.  If you add to all that the over arching theme of driving darkness away with light, you might realize that Zelda is certainly a wonderful and beautiful gift.

This Easter season I taught my youth group that the secret to finding joy is Philippians 4:8 which teaches us to think and dwell upon whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely excellent and praiseworthy.  The Zelda games have so much of those wonderful attributes.  Enjoying these artistic pieces is one great way to celebrate the light of the world and the light that is in the world.

I also spent this Easter season training for a marathon in and around Eden, UT.  The road to Eden goes through, “Mountain Green” whiImage result for eden, utch is aptly named because green abounds on those mountains, especially this time of year.  To accent the green, the mountains were still snow capped.  The lake was smooth as ice, partly because some of it was still ice.  I spent hours running up there marveling at the beauty of it all and celebrating Easter by praying, reciting Scripture and smiling at the various wildlife.  The marathon was a couple weeks ago and we began running right as the sun was rising to illuminate a gorgeous, green day.

I can’t help but draw parallels between the fabricated world of Hyrule and the actual creation of our God.  Eden, UT resembles Hyrule in its beauty.  Actually, Hyrule resembles Eden but it doesn’t match it.  Real life is somehow always better than fabrication.

It also reminds me that, like Hyrule, darkness still threatens this world.  It makes itself known every time I catch myself striding over a dead deer on the highway.  Those carcasses remind me our world is indeed still broken.  Death is still the enemy and he has not yet been vanquished.  As the hymn, “My Hope is Built” reminds us, “Darkness does sometimes veil [God’s] lovely face.”

But so too, the light shines out all the clearer during Easter season.  After all, Jesus didn’t just save me.  He saved and is saving all creation.  Creation was and still is groaning under the oppression of futility.  Unfortunately the ground is still cursed because of Adam.  But Paul teaches in Romans 8 that all creation too “shall be liberated from its bondage to decay.” (Rom. 8:21)

And now as this wonderful Easter season winds down and we march into common time or Kingdomtide, the season for work, we are reminded that God has done God’s part against the darkness and the death.  Now we too must work out our own salvation (see Phil. 2:12-13).

Come oh Jesus, we long for, we work for, you.

 

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.

5 Weeks Later: An Update on Lenten Fasting.

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As I sit here at my computer I am looking out at the tree lined street on which I live.  I can count about 12 trees of various types and heights.  All but the Pine were completely lifeless ten days ago.  Now every single one is bursting with life and I can see gorgeous shades of green, white, pink, red and even some gold.

Believe it or not, the sudden outburst of Spring is the fiercest temptation yet to betray my Lenten fast.

After all, Lent is such a winter season.  It begins with that lifeless and sobering proclamation, “From dust you came, to dust you shall return.”  The Lectionary passages build on that theme, full of somber darkness, from week 1’s gospel passage about temptation and John the Baptist’s beheading to week 4’s poisonous serpents in Numbers 21.

But every Lent, right around week 5 that somber sobriety gets old and seems quite out of date, especially as winter is fading quickly.  And as winter gets old, so to does my Lenten Fast.

Every single Lent I usually have forgotten I was fasting about now.  That is one of the ironies of this church season.  Every January I begin thinking about what to give up. And I always try to pick the most difficult thing, that thing that is not only most creative, but most central to my life.  After all, the idea of fasting is to give up something you will dearly miss.  That way, when you long for it you can redirect the longing towards God.  Therefore, giving up something arbitrary is pointless.

And yet despite trying my hardest whatever I gave up in February seems quite nonexistent in March.  Those things which seemed so integral to my life a month ago are now barely remembered.

Yet therein lies the temptation, because it is a lot easier to take back up something arbitrary than something more weighty.

With warmer weather and the fast getting old, it is easier to betray yourself accidentally, to just flick on the TV or eat that one piece of chocolate or drink that one sip of coffee or whatever it is, simply because we forgot we were fasting it.  After all fasting is for winter and Spring is blooming outside my window.

Next week, Holy Week, I will double down on my fast, choosing to give up more substantial things like food, running and coffee.  That will serve to fight off any other temptation I might be experiencing right now.  However, that is next week.  This week I am stuck in bed, sick with some concotion of a head cold, allergies and a stomach bug and those video games are looking mighty enticing, mostly because I am bored.

So instead, I chose to write about all this in the hopes that maybe some of you can relate at all to any of this.  If you can, I want to assure you, as a way of reassuring myself, that you are not alone.  That seemingly arbitrary thing you gave up which is now knocking at your door can be resisted until Easter puts to death once more the lifeless winter of our souls.

That afternoon, after the sunrise services and baptisms and church breakfasts and family lunches, when you can purposefully kill off your fast, as you turn the TV on or brew a pot of coffee or eat a morsel of chocolate, I hope you feel the Resurrection power anew.

Until then, may God’s grace lead us to the cross.