At the Feet of the Rabbi – Matthew 6

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

 Concerning Almsgiving

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Concerning Prayer

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Concerning Fasting

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Concerning Treasures

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

This is the Ash Wednesday text every lectionary year, probably because it talks about not being showy in one’s faith.  Lenten practices can sometimes be that way.  If you’re talking always about what you’re giving up or you’re talking about the day your fasting or you’re talking about the entire day of prayer, you’ve gotten your reward of those around you, those that you’re bragging to.  Our rabbi is teaching us to do things privately, not with pomp and circumstance.  He’s warning us of getting big heads playing I’m more religious than you are.

It’s not about that.  We don’t volunteer at the Lowcountry Orphan Relief or on work days in Nichols or Sellers or go to Ecuador to get pictures made, though it seems at times like we do, it’s because we want to give what we can or do what we can as we are able because that’s what Jesus calls us to do.  Simple as that.  The Message translation of the Bible seems to get at that idea.  Matthew chapter 6 is titled “The World is a Stage.”  Though I was an English major, I never fancied myself an actress.  Jesus wants us to be real and authentic in our faith.  He doesn’t want a full-fledged Broadway Show, an Oscar winning performance of Saint Narcie and yet the very action is not the thing that gets us into trouble, it’s being pious with the intention of looking down on others.  John Wesley said this, “The thing which is here forbidden, is not barely the doing good in the sight of men; this circumstance alone, that others see what we do, makes the action neither worse nor better; but the doing it before men, “to be seen of them,” with this view from this intention only.”

In his notes, Wesley writes, “In the foregoing chapter our Lord particularly described the nature of inward holiness. In this he describes that purity of intention without which none of our outward actions are holy. This chapter contains four parts, The right intention and manner of giving alms, ver.1 – 4. The right intention, manner, form, and prerequisites of prayer, ver.5 – 15. The right intention, and manner of fasting, ver.16 – 18. The necessity of a pure intention in all things, unmixed either with the desire of riches, or worldly care, and fear of want, ver.19 – 34.”  Let’s get to what our Rabbi was getting at.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

My grandfather was a man like that.  One time my grandmother let slip that he had paid for the carpet all throughout the Greeleyville UMC parsonage.  He helped lots of people, quietly and unobtrusively.

I’ll read you a story by Woody McKay, Jr. called “The Secret Benefactor.”

http://www.chickensoup.com/book-story/41639/the-secret-benefactor

Continuing in Chapter 6, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10     Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11     Give us this day our daily bread.
12     And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13     And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Our Rabbi Jesus teaches us how to pray and gives us a model or example. The Jewish Encyclopedia notes both the practice of a Rabbi teaching the disciples a prayer, and the language of this prayer, place Jesus in the context of others rabbis of his time.   “From the Talmudic parallels (Tosef., Ber. iii. 7; Ber. 16b-17a, 29b; Yer. Ber. iv. 7d) it may be learned that it was customary for prominent masters to recite brief prayers of their own in addition to the regular prayers.”  The Lord’s Prayer as it is now commonly referred to is the world’s most famous prayer of all time.  We would say it in the locker room before basketball games, we said it at the bedside of my grandfather after he died, and I remembered it even after my second brain surgery robbed me of my speech.  Its powerful words could be a whole sermon itself.

Madeleine L’Engle writes this about prayer.

In prayer the stilled voice learns
To hold its peace, to listen with the heart
To silence that is joy, is adoration.
The self is shattered, all words torn apart
In this strange patterned time of contemplation
That, in time, breaks time, breaks words, breaks me
And then, in silence, leaves me healed and mended.

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Announcement in a church bulletin for a national Prayer and Fasting Conference: “The cost for attending the Fasting & Prayer Conference includes meals.”  Martha Moore-Keish, a Presbyterian minister, writes, “Our culture does not know what to do with Ash Wednesday. We do a pretty good job with the feasting right before Ash Wednesday, mind you — more and more people even outside of New Orleans celebrate Mardi Gras with beads and floats, and more and more people devour pancakes and waffles at Shrove Tuesday celebrations. Any excuse for a feast is welcome! But what to do with the depressingly titled Ash Wednesday? A few years ago I saw a restaurant sign that summed up our cultural uncertainty about this date on the Christian calendar: “Ash Wednesday Seafood Buffet: All You Can Eat!” …

The paradox of Ash Wednesday, and of Lent, is that we take on particular disciplines — fasting, prayer, service — in order to repent and conform ourselves more closely to the life and death of Christ, all the while recognizing that Christ has already come to us before we sought him. This is the paradox of the baptized life. We have been joined to Christ once, but we spend the rest of our lives trying to live into that union.

Turning to Christ means turning also to all our neighbors who suffer. According to Isaiah, fasting and praying that brings us to act on behalf of these neighbors is the fast that is acceptable to God.”

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Sister Wendy Beckett in The Mystery of Love: Saints in Art through the Centuries  writes, “When I was young, I longed to be a saint. What was I longing for? I think it was for certainty that my life had been, in the most profound sense, a “success” — that great and glorious success that is sanctity. We revere the saints. We imitate them. Theirs is the true and lasting glory. Very clearly, this desire is, unconsciously, as worldly as that of the writer who wants to write a masterpiece or the politician who yearns to be prime minister or president. None of these ambitions has the least to do with what Jesus preached — that lowliness, that love for last place, that readiness to die and be forgotten … . To be concerned with oneself in any way, to watch one’s growth in “holiness” or “prayer,” to be spiritually ambitious, all this Jesus earnestly sets his face against.”

We’re not holy because we know we store up crowns in heaven.  There is not a giant sticker chart for who says the longest prayers or who fasts the most.  We’re holy because Jesus is holy and he calls us to be holy, little by little, step by step.

There’s an old story about a man from the city who was out driving one day, in the country. The signs on the road weren’t very good, and he got lost. So he stopped at a farmhouse to ask directions. “Can you tell me how far it is to the town of Mill Pond?” he asked.

“Well,” said the old farmer, “the way you’re goin’ it’s about 24,996 miles. But if you turn around, it’s about four.”

And therein lies a lesson. If we want to follow our Rabbi we have to repent.  We have to turn around and see him for who he really is — our Rabbi, the example to follow, but more than that we learned last week in the Transfiguration that he is the Great God of the Universe come down in the form of a baby, our Emmanuel, wading through the muck and mire of our sin and reaching down into the mess of our lives to set our feet on solid ground.  Amen?  Our Rabbi Jesus, first proclaimed the Good News with the Beatitudes and that we are to be salt and light in the world and then expounded on the “real stuff,” when the rubber meets the road and when the ship hits the sand.  Real, practical life applications that are certainly not easy to practice but God gives us the grace, strength and courage to go out into the world and our very own hearts to practice what we preach, not in ostentatious ways, but with humility, standing our ground but shirking from the spotlight.  Wesley treated the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount and other passages as “covered promises.” That is, they are commands that we can obey because God provides the grace to empower us to fulfill what is required.  It’s God’s grace freely given.  As we go through the confession of Communion hear the words anew and afresh, search your hearts, see if anything has taken root there – bitterness, fear, anger, doubt, hatred, judgment –  but hear the rest of it as well.  Hear the Good News, “Christ died for us while we were sinners.  That proves God’s love for us.  In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven.”  Then hear God, our Creator, Jesus, our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit’s mighty works in the Great Thanksgiving.  We’re going to practice Communion every Sunday of Lent.  I invite you to pray the words…

God works wonders from dust…

Today is Ash Wednesday.   It is the beginning of Lent and the day in the church calendar that we are called upon to face our own mortality.   I am confessing a secret that I actually don’t hate Lent.  Because in this crazy, busy culture we need 40 days to contemplate, pray, and fast and this is the day that kicks it all off.  It is in Ash Wednesday that we are called upon to face the deep truth that as mortals we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Mary Oliver says about this life “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  Even though we talk about calling and gifts and graces and God guiding and leading us through life, Ash Wednesday is reminding us that we are dust and to dust we return.

It can be scary, a little refreshing.   Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran priest shares the image she has about Ash Wednesday, “If our lives were a long piece of fabric with our baptism on one end and our funeral on another, and us not knowing what the distance is between the two, well then Ash Wednesday is a time when that fabric is pinched in the middle and then held up so that our baptism in the past and our funeral in the future meet. With these ashes, it is as though the water and words from our baptism plus the earth and words from our funerals have come from the future to meet us here today. And in that meeting we are reminded of the promises of God. Promises which outlast our piety, outlast our efforts in self-improvement, outlast our earthly bodies and the limits of time.”  We live in a culture that tells us if we work hard enough, have enough money, buy enough skin care products, eat healthy enough, or exercise with enough vigor, we might just live forever.  And yet, we know that is not true.  So today, we proclaim the truth that we shall return to the dust over which God first breathed life.

And I, at least, breathe a sigh of relief.   Because admitting and facing my own mortality, allows me to admit that God is God and I am not (and we should all be very thankful for that).  It allows me to lay down my attempts to manage my own human brokenness, and step into the deep and holy mystery that is the Christian life.   Having confessed my sins, and admitted my own mortality, it allows me to live freely this incredible, mortal life that is my reality right now.  It allows me to take chances, take leaps of faith, with every breath that I have in my body.

But perhaps more than that, it helps me to let go of my fear.  Because Ash Wednesday reminds us that in spite of it all, death does not have the last word.   While we and others have the power to destroy our mortal flesh, God has destroyed death.

The beauty of Ash Wednesday is that it cuts through the crud, the non-essentials.  It gets to the heart of the very core of everything.  It reminds us of God’s infinite promises to us.  It reminds us there is beauty in our brokenness, and freedom that we don’t have to live up to some earthly falsehood of perfection.

Ann Voskamp says this about Lent, “I can’t seem to follow through in giving up for Lent. Which makes me want to just give up Lent.  Which makes me question Who I am following.  Which may precisely be the point of Lent.”

Whether you’re adding something or taking something away, whether you commit to have some quiet in your life and spend twenty minutes in day in silence, whether you write down things that you are thankful for, or fast one day a week.   Randy Wells reminded me before the service that I have to talk about the “feast” days on Sundays that you can choose to follow your Lenten discipline or not because every Sunday is supposed to be a Resurrection Sunday or mini-Easter.  He then pointed out, we shouldn’t take that as an invitation to cram all of the other days vices into that one day!

Jo Ann Staebler in her book “Soul Fast,” says, “In the deep stillness of prayer my soul fasts.  Fasting, at its heart, is turning away from what keeps me from God.  Two things I must leave:  the walls I build around the space that was made to be God’s dwelling; the absurdities I keep in that space, so jealously hoarded.  Taking down the wall that protects the false self I have been building, all these years…risking exposure, emptiness, loneliness.  The fast is silence, ocean-deep and prolonged.  Shard by shard, the wall begins to fall.  Inch by inch, the space clears, and Love lights the shadows.  I come unprotected, and learn that God alone is safety.  I come unaccompanied, and find that Christ alone is Friend.  I come hungry, and receive the only food that satisfies.  In letting go is abundance.  In emptying I am filled.  This is not denial, but freedom.  Fast is feast.”

Maybe we should fast from the 24 hours new cycle.  Maybe we should fast from television.  Maybe we should fast from social media.  Maybe we should fast from the electronics that get in the way of us talking to our friends and family, like they are attached to our bodies or something.  It doesn’t matter to me what you do, I just want you to be intentional in this Lenten ritual.  As most things in life, what you put into it, is what you’ll get out of it.  It’s only a tool, a ritual, to draw us closer to Jesus.

Hear these powerful words from the artist and poet, Jan Richardson, in her poem “Blessing the Dust.”

All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—

did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

God can work wonders from dust.  God made you in your mother’s womb.  Psalm 8:3-4 says, “When I look up at your skies, at what your fingers made — the moon and the stars that you set firmly in place — what are human beings that you think about them . . . that you pay attention to them?”

I’ve heard Hawk Nelson’s “Diamonds” on the radio and can’t help but relate it to Ash Wednesday every time it comes on.  Here are the lyrics:

Here and now I’m in the fire, in above my head
Being held under the pressure, don’t know what will be left
But it’s here in the ashes
I’m finding treasure

He’s making diamonds
Making diamonds
He’s making diamonds out of dust
He is refining
And in his timing
He’s making diamonds out of us

I’ll surrender to the power of being crushed by love
‘Til the beauty that was hidden isn’t covered up
It’s not what I hoped for
It’s something much better

Oh The Joy of the Lord
It will be my strength
When the pressure is on
He’s making Diamonds

I won’t be afraid to shine

May we never be afraid to shine.  God can do mighty things through us.  Our Rabbi Jesus can lead us to do some crazy, awesome things as we follow his teachings, example, and have his dust all over us.  The Holy Spirit can fan the fire to make diamonds out of dust.  So, shout it from the roof tops, sing it in your heart, whisper it quietly to yourself, but tell that truth.  That you were formed from dust and to dust you will return.  Then, breathe a sigh of relief and be free.  Because it’s not all about you.  It’s about what God does in us.  As I will say when I put the ashes on your forehead, God can work wonders out of dust.  Thanks be to God indeed.

Drawing Closer – Lenten Journey

I have been being slack in my blog posts and I promise to do better in Lent. Below is a post I wrote on the Winthrop Wesley blog (wuwesley.wordpress.com) that I am posting here as well because in the days to come I may need some accountability as I am led by the Holy Spirit of what this 40 days of wilderness will be.

**************************

Our text at this past week’s worship service was James 1:19-27 which is a familiar part of James. Verse 22 says, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”

It’s a passage that is lifted up in a lot of Protestant congregations and we looked at it in particular leading up to today, Ash Wednesday.

Last week I had the honor and joy to speak at a conference for young adults in ministry. Relevance LEAD was a great time of talking with other pastors and lay people in ministry that were my age, to dream about the possibilities and life of the church, and to share in friendship, community building and collegiality. It was a special time. And something completely different than a typical conference as the speakers were part of the conference just like everyone else and we all have a vested interest in sharing these ideas and musings.

I liked that it was set up to dream big dreams and engage but there was another part of me that kept itching for the nuts and bolts, what would happen when the rubber hits the road. Each person was wrestling with similar things and were living out their faith and that of their community in mighty ways, but it still begged the question of what this means for our greater church. I felt a bit like James – let’s not just talk about this and know that we all feel in similar ways, but let’s do it.

It’s all well and good to talk the big talk, but if we go back home from this conference and it doesn’t change how we think or how we do things, if we don’t take away friendships that will continue as we journey together, if we don’t actually begin the first steps of these big dreams – what’s the point? It’s good to know that you’re not alone, but if we stay completely in the theoretical, than it can sometimes just be hot air and words.

Just like this Lenten season. I’ve heard students buzzing about what they’re giving up for Lent and that seems like the big question of the next couple of days. I admit, I didn’t grow up with a huge emphasis on giving things up or adding things to my life and I didn’t really do it until college. One of those years I gave up popcorn, which was my current obsession. The next year, I gave up M&M Mcflurries. Now that was all well and good and I think I could rationalize them as a step to be healthy but even that would be a stretch with all of the rest of the junk I eat.

You see, it’s not just about what we give up or add – it’s about whether those things draw us closer to God. Several of our students have talked about giving up facebook. One is giving up three hours a day with her phone – not just class time or when she’s asleep, but three hours where she won’t be checking it all the time. She plans on this being time where she can draw closer to God. Another student has covenanted to intentionally pray three times a day for the season of Lent. If you’re just giving up chocolate or ice cream or coffee for the heck of it and it’s not something that’s drawing you closer to God – what’s the point? I get the idea of sacrifice but I also think if we just do the sacrifice and we’re not adding things like reading scripture, doing a daily devotion, writing down things that we’re thankful for, renewing an old friendship, sending words of encouragement to friends, or walking in the outdoors with God in nature – than we’re fooling ourselves into thinking that we have this thing covered. It’s not about choosing something so that if someone asks us about it – we can give a ready made answer, but choosing something because we have invited the Holy Spirit into our lives and have opened ourselves to see the areas that we might need to work on.

One of the students Monday night after worship described it as a giant Pinterest board where you’ve “pinned” all these different things and they look nice and easy and like things that you would like to do “one day,” but you never actually get around to doing them. James is saying – do it now. Lent is calling us forth to realizing that yes we are dust and to dust we will return, but in the meantime let us draw close to God and walk this road.

My brother Josh is doing a Lenten series called “Holy Walkabout” and I love the idea of Lent being this special time where we’re walking with God into the wilderness. We don’t always know what we’re going to discover or the ways that God will reveal God’s self. We don’t always know what areas we need to work on in our lives because I don’t know about you, but I’m a pretty good rationalizer. I would say that I’m exceptional when it comes to finding ways to eat junk food. It defeats the purpose of Lent for me to negotiate back and forth if this counts or if that counts. Because when we open ourselves to the Spirit’s leading and we actually go all in with this thing, we realize that it’s not just about us or having something to say when people ask, but it’s about wanting to be part of this larger story of God’s love and grace for us and how we can best live that out so that the world may know God.

So are you going to keep pinning the things that you want to do on a giant to do list to do eventually or you going to actually start chipping away at some of these possibilities right now?

God’s not going to hand out gold stars for those that participate and unsmiley faces for those that don’t. It’s not about that. But it is about deepening that relationship and trusting that real change, habitual change can take place in 40 days.

So think about it…ask the Holy Spirit to come and guide you…what are some ways you can draw close to God this Lenten season? What are some things that hinder or road block your relationship? What are some ways that we can intentionally live out our faith right now?

Dig in.

Why not some small rebellions during Lent?

Kathy Bostrom, wise woman that she is posted to her facebook status, “I never have given up something for Lent. Instead, I try to add one more prayer, one more act of kindness, one more word of grace, one more way of being the Love of God for God’s children. Join me?”

I loved that sentiment.  It reminded me of Jars of Clay’s song, “Small Rebellions.”  If we spent our days doing these small rebellions what a world it would be.  If we intentionally practiced this, not just for Lent, but for always – wowzers what could happen?

God of the break and shatter
Hearts in every form still matter
In our weakness help us see
That alone we’ll never be
Lifting any burdens off our shoulders

If our days could be filled with small rebellions
Senseless, brutal acts of kindness from us all
If we stand between the fear and firm foundation
Push against the current and the fall
The current and the fall

God of the warn and tattered
All of Your people matter
Give us more than words to speak
Cause we are hearts and arms that reach
And love climbs up and down the human ladder

Give us days to be filled with small rebellions
Senseless, brutal acts of kindness from us all
If we stand between the fear and firm foundation
Push against the current and the fall
The current and the fall

The fall

We will never walk alone again
No, we will never walk alone again
No, we will never walk alone again

Give us days to be filled with small rebellions
Senseless, brutal acts of kindness from us all
If we stand between the fear and firm foundation
Push against the current and the fall
Give us days to be filled with small rebellions
Senseless, brutal acts of kindness from us all
If we stand between the fear and firm foundation
Push against the current and the fall
The current and the fall

The fall…

Fasting from Distractions

Since Monday I’ve been having some back pain.  When you have fibromyalgia and you have two toddlers that you may or may not pick up all the time, it’s not all that surprising to have some aches and pain.  Generally I would just think no big deal but, I couldn’t sleep last night and ended up having a fitful night of sleep on my back.  I never, ever sleep on my back.  Yep, I feel like I’m whining now, and on Ash Wednesday no less.

I’m preaching the Ash Wednesday sermon tonight at a local church and the students are tagging along with me.  One of our students is hearing impaired and she and her amazing interpreter, one of our other students are both coming tonight.  Erica (the interpreter) was excited about going until I told her I was preaching.  Just kidding…a bit.  She knows that I talk fast and my hands are always moving and trying to interpret with my randomness is an exercise in and of itself.  She asked if I could give her some notes about what I’m preaching on.  That’s fair, right?

But all I can think about is this dull and sometimes sharp ache in my back.  It is driving me crazy today.  To dust we will become, heck – we’re already beginning to fall apart and feel like that dust sometimes.  As much as this distracts me from work, having a coherent conversation with someone, actually being pastoral or even listening at all at this point, I think about all those that deal every day with a dull or sharp pain.  This pain is not always physical, but often emotional, spiritual, psychological, really real.  We each carry around past hurts or wounds.  We each have moments of uncertainty, fear, and doubt in the midst of painful situations or the reminders of those painful situations.

I read a post on neue magazine earlier today (http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fneuemagazine.com%2Findex.php%2Fblog%2F6-main-slideshow%2F1200-lent-and-fasting-from-the-voice-in-your-head%3Futm_source%3DNeue%2BWeekly%26utm_campaign%3Db18167bb08-Neue_Weekly_03_09_11%26utm_medium%3Demail&h=e24ef) that talked about fasting from the voice inside your head.  The voice that tells you you’re not good enough, smart enough or pretty enough.  The voice that tells you that you would be so much happier or more fulfilled if you would just… 

I get that.  I think that’s a great focus this season to let go of some of those voices, some of that negativity.  I love that intentionality and purpose of reminding oneself repeatedly that there is someone greater that you belong to, respond to, and answer to – not just some voice inside your head.

If this Ash Wednesday brings a day that marks the beginning of a season of repentance and spiritual renewal, then we have to ask ourselves the hard questions.  I love some of the ones that Rachel Held Evans lifts up in her blog, http://rachelheldevans.com/40-ideas-for-lent-2011.  What do we need to repent from?  What consistently stands in our way to feel the freedom of Christ?  What voices or people or hurts or situations have held us back from that abundant life?  What are those fears and doubts that we can let go and repentant of during this season?  How can we move closer and closer to that freedom, even if it means making hard choices and decisions?

And then drawing towards that spiritual renewal, how can we be more intentional in our drawing closer to God?  Does that mean giving up facebook, or does that mean we’re intentional and Christ-centered when we post, comment or spend time on facebook?  Just like this blog (http://penelopepiscopal.blogspot.com/2011/03/are-you-christian-giving-up-social.html) writes, I’d hate for Christians to stop shining their lights during a season when the world needs to hear and know the power of repentance and also resurrection.

Don't go with the tag line, but how many of us go through life distracted by the next shiny object in front of us? Or are we grounded and focused in the midst. (Not trying to take out all spontaneity but you get the point.)

In a recent column in Entertainment Weekly, Mark Harris writes a piece called “Taking Multitasking to Task.”  I loved it.  It really spoke to me in profound ways about how we’re living this world in which doing everything is expected and when you don’t it’s frowned upon.  For some of us, instead of diving into the hard stuff, the more difficult, the more challenging, we’ll keep consuming a lot of the easier or more fluff things, just so that we can do a gazillion things at once and say that we’re connected and on top of things.  For some of us, trying to be all places for all people is easier when we skim the surface and don’t take time to listen, reflect, discern and really meet with people or God.  Maybe y’all don’t relate to that.  He closes his piece with, “I have friends who’ve recently taken their own steps toward reclaiming control–one is trying internet-free Sundays; another has sworn off texting while in the presence of actual human beings.  So, in that spirit, this year I plan to hold to the principle that half of my focus is always the wrong amount–that someitmes the TV can go off, or the laptop can be put away, or Google can wait.  I’m going to try to undivide my attention, and see if my entertainment choices (and my thoughts about them) get any sharper as a result.  It couldn’t hurt.  Well, that’s a lie.  The scary thing is, it hurts already.”  He’s talking about entertainment, but there’s a part of Lent in there for me. 

What do we give our full attention?  A more pertinent question to me probably – do I ever give anything my full attention?  Are we running through our to do lists for the day when we do our morning devotion or are our minds in ten different places as we’re working on our sermons or our small groups or our Sunday school classes?  What gets our full attention?

When I look at how these 40 days are supposed to be a time of Spiritual Renewal, I have to ask myself honestly where my attention and focus will be and how I’m going to invite the Spirit to lead me and guide me in the disciplines or the actions that will be undertaken.  If I’m doing it, just to have an answer when someone asks me what I’m giving up or adding for Lent, then that’s rubbish. 

There’s something that he said at the end of the article.  He says, “The scary thing is, it hurts already.”  I’m not saying we beat ourselves up for Lent and what we give up or add shouldn’t be a contest for who is the most devout Christian (although I do wonder how many viewers that tv show would get week to week.)  We need to discern where we are.  We need to focus our attention on the Word of God and see what will help draw us towards repentance and renewal and go with it – with the grace, mercy, leading and strength of One who knows us far better than we even know ourselves.

Two things I’ll leave you with.  There some of my favorite things to use during Lent.  The first is from Jan Richardson’s In Wisdom’s Path.  She says, “The season begins with ashes and invites us into a time of stripping away all that distracts us from recognizing the God who dwells at our core.  Reminding us that we are ashes and dust, God beckons us during Lent to consider what is elemental and essential in our lives.  As a season of preparation for the mysteries of death and resurrection, it is a stark season.”  Hopefully it’s not just a stark season – something different than normal – but a rich season.

Roberta Porter is one of my most favorite writers for Alive Now, she writes in her prayer,

Broken Open

Culture’s message is immediate

fulfillment, gratification.

But when I hungrily seek control

in my power, with my plans,

I am full, brimming over

with empty calories,

and strangely unfulfilled.

I pray to be broken open – unafraid

of change – and pour out pride.

My Spirit fast teaches me

as I am willing to yield,

more space for grace appears,

and more of Christ,

Bread of Life,

is revealed.

When the ashes are put upon our heads either this morning, midday, tonight, may we remember that we are dust and to dust we will become again and may we take the days and months and years ahead to focus and retreat to the One who goes before us, beside us, and sometimes even pushing us to grasp hold of this thing called abundant life.

One last one, because I love this one too.  Also from Alive Now the March/April 2001 edition…

Quiet Day Retreat

To be quiet, both without and within —

to welcome silence and space

and unbroken meditation.

I have not given up food

— the typical fast —

but I’ve emptied my mind

for an hour, or a day.

I’ve overturned it like a bowl,

forbidding entry of my plans, my chores.

Then come thoughts and reflections,

then come inspiration

and then I can return refreshed

to the frantic daily world.

What sort of fast is this?

A fast from calendars, schedules, from self-important busyness.

Or is it a feast?

A feast of stillness, reverence, waiting.

No matter — I am renewed and filled

with precious gifts of spirit and God’s presence.

– Nadine N. Doughty