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.

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A Blessing For Small Town America

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For the last 32 months I have been a pastor in a Northwest, logging town of 1700 people.  There are small towns and then there is where I live, which is dinky.

I have loved every minute of living here.  I have loved the scenery, the people, the identity, the community.  Just this morning towards the end of my run I ran into one of my congregants downtown.  All the small business owners know who I am.  Likewise, I am well known at the schools.

Moreover, this is one of the most laid back places in America.  There is a libertarian attitude to the whole town that is quite jarring at first but quite endearing over time.  In fact, I have often said the best thing about Elgin is also the worst thing about Elgin.  It is that you can get away with murder here.  That is great news, unless you are being murdered and, by metaphor, I have been murdered a few times.

But last September I sensed God was calling me elsewhere.  In early January I was officially called by a small congregation in a suburb of Salt Lake City, UT where 80,000 people live.  It is the exact opposite of Elgin.

I am quite certain God has called me to this new venture. .  However, living in a tiny town has been a lot like going to summer camp and this is Friday, the day everybody goes home.

So before I change that byline on your left from “A Small Town Pastor’s Thoughts About Grace” to “A Small Church Pastor’s Thoughts About Grace” I thought I would take a moment to try to articulate my love for this place.

I have known for a few months this day was coming so I have had time to think long and hard about what this post would be.  A month ago I read a wonderful chapter in Barbara Brown Taylor’s book “An Altar In The World.”  The chapter was about the practice of blessing others.  It got me thinking that the best way to properly describe and honor the town I am leaving would be to pronounce the Lord’s blessing upon it.

So here goes:

God Bless Elgin, OR, its people, its businesses, it organizations and its churches.

May the Lord richly bless the citizens both young and old

Bless those who live in the town and those who live in the fields around,

Bless those who just moved here, whether young and broke or old and retired.

Bless those who were born here and will never leave and bless those whose parents, grandparents and great grandparents have invested heavily in this town’s prosperity.

Bless those who just arrived.  May their love for this place be greater than my own.

Bless those are poor and live in trailers.  May they find acceptance, wholeness and meaningful work.

Bless those who farm the land on each side.  May the heavens bring them rain in its season and dry, sunny weather when its needed.  May their crops and fields yield enough produce to feed thousands.

Bless the lumber mill and its employees.  May their efforts to conserve the forest continue to provide lumber for many centuries to come.  May your employees find satisfaction and enjoyment in their work and may the administration administer fairly and equitably.

Bless the homeless teenagers.  May they not only find a couch to sleep on but a family to give them the warmth and comfort a couch never could.

Bless the single moms.  There are far too many.  May the Lord bring them sustainable income, blessings of wisdom, and stress free days.  May the Lord be the father their children never had.

Bless the alcoholics and drug addicts.  May they find freedom from addictions and identity in Christ.  May their testimonies cause many to give thanks to the Lord.

Bless the schools, their students, teachers, staff and administrators.  May the Lord’s wisdom prevail so that the students do not just learn data but become critical thinkers and engaged citizens.

Bless the businesses, both the start-ups and those firmly established.  May they employ many with gainful wages.  May their income be ethically earned and may their products and transactions bring joy and mirth to the community.

Bless the clubs and associations:  the quilting, the Lyons, the Opera House, the Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development, the City Council, the High School Associations, the Sports teams, and all else.  May their efforts bring unity and coherency and identity to all those who participate.

Bless the churches.  May their efforts to work together and sing together not overshadow their need to pray together.  May the Lord hear their prayers.  May the Lord bless and increase their members.  And may they seek the peace of this place.

Lord, bless this town.  Pour out your spirit on the rich and poor, the young and old, the hardworking and lazy, the truck drivers, millwrights, small business owners, farmers and commuters.

Bring your peace and prosperity to its people.  Bring your love and warmth and grace.  Do not withhold any blessing but richly give all good things.

Amen.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: What About Hitler?

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Reading is a difficult thing for a pastor.  First, there is too much to read and the internet age has multiplied it exponentially.  Second, to know what to read you have to rely on the suggestions of friends, co-pastors and mentors who all recommend lousy books from time to time.  Third, some books have wonderful ideas but are horribly written, making them painful.  Other books are wonderfully written but have horrible ideas (or worse, no ideas) making them equally as painful.

With all this mind, I believe there is only one type of worthless book.  It is the book that agrees with everything I all ready think.  Those books are a waste of time and money.  I would rather read a book that infuriates me by arguing that all dogs should go to hell than read a book that merely substantiates my belief that all dogs end up in heaven.

With that said, it was with no small amount of fear and trembling that I downloaded and read Robert Brimlow’s “What About Hitler: Wrestling with Jesus’ Call to Nonviolence in an Evil World.”

After all I am self described what about hitlerpacifist, though I have reservations with that exact word.  Still, I wholeheartedly believe that to follow Jesus requires opposing violence and embracing peace.  These views have been shaped over a long period of time which involved much prayer, Bible study, reading, reflection, conversations with friends and the like.  Therefore, reading yet one more book about pacifism would only harden my opinions and waste my time.

The title of the book is what trapped me.  “What about Hitler?”  Every war monger asks a pacifist that question, “Well then what about Hitler?”  Then they watch the now former pacifist hem and haw until they admit that they probably would kill Hitler if given a time machine.  That question so annoys and frustrates me that I had to read the book to see if maybe there was an answer.

So with all trepidation I downloaded the book and began reading.  And what followed was not a passionately argued philosophical treatise on pacifism that hardened my opinions.  It was a call for renewal among pacifists to embrace peacekeeping in their very lives.

This call came in many forms.  At times it certainly was passionate, philosophical argument.  At other times it was devotional as Brimlow inserted written prayers that wrestle with Scripture passages.  At other times it was honest autobiography as Brimlow struggled with his own testimony and setting.  Then, suddenly, the last chapter was fiercely spiritual as Brimlow argued for a renewal of the spiritual disciplines among Christ’s followers.  That chapter held the most wonderful paragraphs on prayer I have yet read, and I have read a lot about prayer.

With all this said, “What About Hitler” is perhaps the most self aware philosophy book out there.  Every time Brimlow begins preaching he takes several steps back and honestly confesses, “Yet I am still not quite sure.”  At one point near the end Brimlow says he hears trumpets pronouncing victory behind his argument and then tries to silence them by bringing fully into bear what he has argued.

I wish myself and other theologians and philosophers had the humility he does.

In the end he answers the question “What About Hitler” by claiming that if Christians had followed the peacekeeping commands of Jesus in the centuries leading up to World War 2 the Nazis would not have happened, or at least not been able to so easily convince the German citizenry to annihilate the Jewish people.  In such thinking Hitler was the punishment for Christianity’s disobedience, not the cause of them.

That is certainly a bold argument, but it is persuasive because right after the claim, Brimlow admits his own efforts to keep peace are often thwarted by his own anger and hatred.  This simple-spoken humility speaks volumes about peace.  It turns out, at least according to Brimlow, that peacemaking and peacekeeping are useless without humility, something many “pacifists” just do not have.

On every page Brimlow humanizes and speaks love for those who disagree because he fully believes that loving those who disagree with you is what keep wars from happening.

This ends with a lovely chapter on prayer.  Brimlow argues that every Christian from just war theorists to pacifists to taxpayers to soldiers and to those who won’t even kill spiders must renew their prayer.

He brings this to bear by saying, “Instead of trying to fit prayer into my busy schedule, I should try to fit my schedule into my busy prayer” (p. 184).  I could not agree more.

In the end, this did the opposite of what I suspected.  Instead of becoming more passionate about pacifism, I have become more loving towards those who disagree with me.  Just maybe that will prevent a war one day.  But who really knows?