Why Lent, Why Fast Part 4: Feast Days!

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Very early on in Christianity the new believers began meeting every Saturday night or Sunday morning to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus.  They thought the Resurrection was such a world changing event, they celebrated its anniversary every single week.  Contrary to popular belief, they did not believe Jesus created a new Sabbath on Sundays.  They just were so appreciative of the reality of the resurrection, a resurrection that guarantees our own resurrections, that they threw a dinner party for it once a week and invited anybody who wanted to come join them!

For that reason, when they eventually began the season of Lent, they allowed those fasting to break their fasts on Sundays, a practice which continues to today.  The thinking was that if Lent is suffering with Christ, we should not suffer on the weekly anniversary of the Resurrection.

With that said, I have never celebrated the feast days until this year.  I figured the practice was a little trite and some part of me felt guilty for breaking my fast for the Feast days.  I am not sure what changed in me but this year I decided I should celebrate the Feast days just to see what happened.  Spoiler alert: I found the practice quite meaningful.

Not only did the feast days better accentuate Sundays as the miniature celebrate of Easter that they are, but it also made the weekly fasting more meaningful.

The very first Sunday of Lent, I had just finished my very painful detox of caffeine.  I was so miserable at that point, that the very thought of giving my body that which it had been craving, only to take it away again seemed cruel.  And if I hadn’t decided to celebrate the feast days before that moment, I would have gone without coffee that day and probably all 45 days of Lent.

But I always do what I set out do, so that first Sunday I brewed some coffee.  After pouring it into my mug, I took a moment to smell the glorious aroma.  I then sipped, very slowly and very cautiously the bold, black substance on my walk to church.  The very next day I was suffering with Jesus again with headaches, chills, spasms and lethargy.

Now it has been five weeks and the preoccupation with caffeine is almost entirely out of my body, if not yet out of my soul.  I am not lethargic.  I am not shaky.  I feel just as energized as I did with coffee and I certainly don’t get any withdrawal symptoms on Mondays.  But Sundays certainly have a new enthusiasm and energy as the caffeine provides double the energy it formerly did!

But the feast days have not been about the renewed energy.  They have been about that first smell of coffee, that wonderful aroma drifting up into my nose.  Smell, after all, is the least appreciated sense.  I heard once that aromas are locked into our memories long after sounds and tastes and sights are gone.  The very waft of a smell can bring back a flood of nostalgia or hatred.  A smell can alter our mood quicker than any of the other senses can.  And on the weekdays without coffee, I miss the smell the most.  So on Sundays when I first hover over the mug, the smell reminds me that as dour and dark as this world may be, there is a newer, brighter day coming when our bodies shall be raised from the dead.  Those who are dead in Christ shall be made alive!  We are new creations!  Jesus is making all things new!  I long for Easter that much more and for the better world that Jesus’ second return will bring.

This morning I talked to my congregation about the necessity of not losing hope.  I argued that when we lose hope we crucify Jesus all over again.  When we escape our strongholds of hope, we become enslaved again by fear and rage and death.

And sometimes all we need to remain in the safety of hope is the smell of dark coffee on a Sunday morning.

Tune back tomorrow for some Holy Week reflections.

Monday Morning Repentance

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I was reading a magazine article with a group of pastors awhile back.  The article was about Sunday morning critics who used the car ride home to complain about everything they didn’t like about the worship service.

After we read that line, this group of pastors admitted to each other that we were the worst Sunday morning critics.  In fact, chances are, if you used the Sunday lunch to gossip about your pastor, your pastor was at some other restaurant being 10 times more critical of themselves.

You see what happens is that a pastor accomplishes more in 5 hours on a Sunday morning than you accomplish in a 40 hour work week.  Most Sundays, we survive at a level of chaos only known to E.R. surgeons.  It is a wild ride of emotions, little crises and small performances.  It takes a huge amount of adrenaline to get through those 5 hours and the best pastors are always on their guard, painstakingly choosing every word, carefully forcing themselves to convey meaningful body language at all times and trying desperately to connect with people who may need a reminder that their pastor cares for them.

And the more a pastor does on a Sunday, the worse it gets.  For pastors who teach a Sunday School class, preach more than one service, go out to lunch with congregants and lead a Sunday night group, it takes until about Tuesday morning to be even remotely recovered from that adrenaline surge.

Furthermore, if something very drastic goes wrong that morning, like a parishioner decides this is the morning to scream at you (which happens to most pastors about once or twice a year), you can pretty much write off the week.

In my life, I have found that since I have been “on” since 7am, the “off” switch usually takes the form of telling my wife everything I did wrong that morning.  You see, all Sunday morning I have been compiling my list in the back of my head about things I shouldn’t have said, body language I shouldn’t have conveyed, people I forgot to talk too, mis-communications that happened between me and others and the like.  Strangely enough, I am almost never critical of others, except when they scream at me after church.

This all lead to a new ritual in my life that I am calling, “Monday Morning Repentance.”  I did not choose this ritual nor have I even thought it all the way through.  But I do notice that when I manage to drag myself out of bed on Mondays and get to the office I usually have a list of apologies I need to make.

The list has three categories.  The first is apologies to others.  The second is apologies to myself.  The third is apologies to God.  Then my Monday morning is spent in prayer, contemplation and waiting for that proper hour (11am) to make some phone calls of apology.

It is a quite uncomfortable ritual and one that grew out of all the frustration I have with myself.  Why did I say that thing I said?   Why did I add that unnecessary point to my sermon?  Why did I forget that Powerpoint slide was in the presentation and skip over it?  In Sunday School, why did I insinuate that potato chips are as bad as alcohol?  Why can’t I ever start the service on time?   Why wasn’t I more prepared?  And why didn’t I stop and listen when that older woman started to tell me a story about her week while I was on my way to the restroom?

The answer to that last one is fairly obvious.  If I had stopped and listened, her story for next week would be about the wet pants of a young, inexperienced pastor!

These questions are probably well and good.  I pursue the perfect Sunday morning every week and every week I feel like I fall shorter and shorter of the mark.  A lot of times the mistakes are perfectly avoidable and flow out of sheer lack of self control and a lousy work ethic.  And sometimes those mistakes are unavoidable or unforeseeable.

Be that as it may, us pastors must take care that Monday Morning Repentance doesn’t replace Sunday Morning’s Grace.  After all, the church doesn’t rest on our shoulders.  The grace of God is not limited by our full bladders or by our adrenaline addled body language.  Neither is God’s grace undone by our half thought out Sunday School insinuations or our lousy sermon metaphors.

After all, this God we worship is the same God who in Scripture uses things like donkeys, dead bodies, magicians from the East and even a witch from Endor to communicate saving grace.  Even though I feel pretty beat up right now, I am sure I am more capable than three of those four things.  And you are probably more capable than all four!

So I hope that Sunday Morning’s Grace will meet you during your Monday Morning Repentance.  If today your find yourself begging God for forgiveness, making those frantic phone calls to angry congregants and trying to find the strength to forgive yourself, I hope a donkey starts talking and a valley of dry bones grow some flesh to remind you that God is greater than your lousy body language!

Blessings this week.

Get It Over With Sunday

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I regularly remind my congregation that when you do 52 worship services a year, some are just going to stink.  There is no avoiding it nor is there any picking or planning which ones they are going to be.  Some mornings things are just not going to come together.

By all accounts this morning at around 8am, things looked to be going that way.  First of all I was still home at 8am despite my attempts to be at church by that time.  Between 8:00 and 8:10, I walked the mile between my home and the church building, trying to pray.  Instead I found my mind was a jumbled mess of stray thoughts all trying and failing to find a well-organized logic structure to call home.  On top of that, my body was a chaos of sore muscles and achy joints because the last two weeks I have been doing the workouts with my Cross Country team despite being in the worst shape of my life.  Add to that the fatigue and exhaustion of my spirit after a long and stressful week and the result was a Kevin who was not in any frame of mind to be “Pastor Kevin.”  Then it occurred to me that half my worship team was gone, which probably meant half the church was too because we no longer celebrate the “holy” on holy-day weekends but instead we go camping, unless we are unlucky enough to be the Pastor.

At 9:30 I watched the parking lot with eager anticipation, expecting three families to show up with their toddlers to a new preschool class we are launching.  These families all guaranteed me they would be there.  My wife had gotten out of bed early so that my daughter could join them.  The 3 families did not show.  I had woken my wife up an hour earlier than usual so she could play with my temper prone daughter in our nursery for an extra hour.  She did that spouse thing where she knows it isn’t my fault but wants to blame me anyway.  I was apologetic.

That all suddenly became irrelevant because I remembered that my youth leader was not going to be there either.  As if on cue, three teenagers showed up late.  I intercepted them and had a conversation about the “Problem of Evil” in my Sunday School office where I half connected with them and half bored them to death.  That was okay, though, because I fully bored myself to death.

Then people started trickling into church.  I got stuck in the sound booth because we had our usual audio and video problems with which to contend.  Of course, our regular AV person wasn’t there so we had to equip another saint to step in (one of the teens from Sunday School).  As I ironed out those problems, my treasurer had business that needed my input (the writing of my paycheck, which I was all too ready to give back if the Sunday didn’t start looking up) and several well meaning souls reminded me one by one by one by one that the “most important announcement ever” (also known as the community hymn sing) did not make the bulletin.

After fixing the AV and expressing my condolences one by one by one about the announcement not getting its due in our Sacred Bulletin, I met with my tiny worship team.  We prayed and entered the sanctuary and I found myself wondering, “is it noon yet?”

We sang a song, did the greeting time and I got up to give the announcements (giving the hymn sing its due) and to my surprise the sound was not broadcasting very loudly despite being turned up quite loud.

But suddenly I could hear the congregation sing, which was surprising considering we had 30 people.  When we have 60, I regularly do not hear the congregation.  But because of our sound issues I could hear almost everybody’s voice and, man, that was beautiful.

Then I got up to preach.  My sermon looked good on paper but I hated preaching it to half the congregation, particularly on a day when my own well was running dry.  To top it off the PowerPoint automatically advanced the slides every 10 seconds whether I wanted it to or not.

But somewhere between the songs and my sermon, the Sunday stopped being “Get It Over With Sunday” and started being something sacred.  I don’t know if it was hearing the congregation sing or if it was that once I started preaching, I found an untapped vein of Holy Water in my otherwise empty cistern.  Or it could have been that one wonderful congregant who hung on every word of my sermon.  She came down to pray at the altar during the closing songs and I invited the congregation to gather around her to pray for her.  

Needless to say we had a moment as the people of God that won’t soon be forgotten or undone.

Isn’t it amazing that when I am not fully present, God still is.