Posted in Campus Ministry, Lent, Life, Sermons

Week 1 of Lent – Storms

We began the Lenten season with Matthew 4:1-11 which is the familiar section where beforehand Jesus has been baptized and he goes into the wilderness for 40 days and nights.  He is then tempted by the devil 3 times with questions about his power and Jesus responding in scripture back to him.  When people are questioned about their power and their authority is questioned, sometimes their hackles are raised and it’s easy to react out of a defensiveness or justification of how powerful you think you are.

When this Sunday rolled around a couple weeks ago, the Charlie Sheen saga was at a fever pitch.  It was right after he started waving around a machete on top of a building.  Now I know that people in Hollywood generally may have a healthy sense of self, but waving around a machete and talking about bi-winning and having goddesses are not really the way to go about winning America’s love much less your argument that you are the one with the most power that everyone should praise.  And yet, there was something about this terrible spectacle that at least some people watched because ratings have been up for the show and people couldn’t get enough of the news stories, interviews, and magazine covers.  There’s a certain kind of power that needs attention to be validated.  There’s a certain kind of power that feeds on the frenzy whether good or bad and the ego just continues to grow and mutate.

Now Jesus, who is both God and man could be argued to have been the most powerful human to ever walk the face of the earth.  Nope this wasn’t some demigod or Zeus.  This was God, right here, Emmanuel – God with us.  Now, you didn’t see Jesus waving around machetes or calling for press conferences to do great miracles and healings.  In all actuality a lot of the miracles and healings that he did, he did with what was handy whether a couple loaves and fishes or his own spit mixed with some dirt, and about half the time he told the people don’t tell anyone about this. 

In this snapshot with the devil in Matthew, he’s not falling for the trick of the attack on his ego, he’s answering clearly and definitively in scripture.  In some ways this would have been prime time for him to show how awesome and powerful he is.  He had just been baptized and a loud voice had burst through the clouds and said “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)  That’s bigger than any political endorsement that you could get.  With a ringing pronouncement like that you would think he would have immediately used all that capital and start ministering everywhere showing all the he could do.

And yet, in Matthew immediately after the baptism it says that Jesus was then “led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”  Jesus was led by the Spirit.  He didn’t just go off on his own and start building his own little kingdom on earth with a huge building, marketing campaign, and tv spots.  He listened to the Spirit and followed even if that was into the wilderness where he would be tempted.  One of my dad’s favorite Bible verses in high school that he shared with me when I was in high school was 1 Corinthians 10:13 which says, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.  God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”  Jesus could handle this testing.  He could.  That didn’t make it any easier to go through.  That didn’t mean it was any less tough.  When is fasting ever easy for the human body?  As any youth group that has done the 30 hour famine can tell you, fasting is not easy.  As anyone who has given up desserts or chocolate or soft drinks or sugar for Lent can tell you, fasting is not easy.  Mother Theresa used to say, “I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish that He didn’t trust me so much.”

What are some ways that we have been tested?  How did we respond to those tests?  How was God with us in those tests?  Tests are not necessarily things we look forward to whether in school or in life, but if we prepare for them, it’s that much easier to be ready.  One of the students and I talked last night about questions of theodicy or why God lets bad things happen.  She specifically was asking about a friend who had died while still in high school, about my brain tumor, and about the continued struggle and misery of the people of Japan.  I don’t have some big, perfect answer to give that’s going to wipe all the sorrow away.  I don’t.  But I do know that God is with her friend’s family and with the people in Japan.

I don’t believe that God causes cancer or earthquakes or tsunamis or abuse, but I do believe that God is with us in our sorrow and in our anger and in our doubts and in our fears.  I have no idea why God allows some things to happen.  Like I told her last night, as much as I think that may be one of those things that we would want to ask on the other side, I honestly don’t think we’ll care all that much at that point in the midst of God’s presence.  I also trust and know that if we dig into the Word of God and if we are fed spiritually that when the tests and struggles of life arise, we’ll be that much more prepared.  Jesus didn’t just let the devil keep taunting him.  He answered clearly and specifically from the Word of God.  Even when scripture was thrown back at him, he didn’t waver from the truth and where his heart and trust was.  He was strong.  He was ready.  He wasn’t just on a Charlie Sheen power trip.  He didn’t have to prove his power by some big display or some long soliloquy.  He just had to answer solidly and unwaveringly in faith.

Often it is our fears that get in the way of us feeling this security or confidence.  In the movie The King’s Speech a lot of the soon to be King George’s hang up with stuttering goes back to trauma and fear.  A lot of our fears and worries can be traced back to our own traumas and fears.  God is offering us something different though, better than any SAT or GRE prep course and better than any class we can take at the local college, community center or YMCA.  God is offering for us to know God whether through scripture or prayer or song or meditation or silence or just opening our hearts and eyes to the fingerprints of God around us.  God is offering us tools and foundations so that when the storms of life are raging, we know who’s standing beside us.

So as we continue this Lenten season, may we continue to prepare ourselves through repentance and renewal knowing that God is beside us and before us no matter what this world may bring.

When the storms of life are raging,
Stand by me (stand by me);
When the storms of life are raging,
Stand by me (stand by me);
When the world is tossing me
Like a ship upon the sea
Thou Who rulest wind and water,
Stand by me (stand by me).

In the midst of tribulation,
Stand by me (stand by me);
In the midst of tribulation,
Stand by me (stand by me);
When the hosts of hell assail,
And my strength begins to fail,
Thou Who never lost a battle,
Stand by me (stand by me).

In the midst of faults and failures,
Stand by me (stand by me);
In the midst of faults and failures,
Stand by me (stand by me);
When I do the best I can,
And my friends misunderstand,
Thou Who knowest all about me,
Stand by me (stand by me).

In the midst of persecution,
Stand by me (stand by me);
In the midst of persecution,
Stand by me (stand by me);
When my foes in battle array
Undertake to stop my way,
Thou Who savèd Paul and Silas,
Stand by me (stand by me).

When I’m growing old and feeble,
Stand by me (stand by me);
When I’m growing old and feeble,
Stand by me (stand by me);
When my life becomes a burden,
And I’m nearing chilly Jordan,
O Thou “Lily of the Valley,”
Stand by me (stand by me).

Posted in Ash Wednesday, Faith, Life, Methodism

What would our logo be?

Last night during the Ash Wednesday service there were many funny occasions as I caught Erica (our volunteer sign language translator extraordinaire) giving me and others looks like – what!!?  how am I supposed to translate that???.  But one thought-provoking moment stood out.  She had asked Mary earlier in the evening what the sign for the word forgiven is and so when I said as part of the liturgy, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven” she thought she nailed it.  The irony came when she found out afterwards that the sign she was doing was punished not forgiven.  Mary of course knew what she meant and I am as always hugely grateful that Erica puts up with us, but I’ve been chuckling and musing about this since last night.

In the name of Jesus Christ, you are punished. 

This morning at Wesley we hosted a district meeting for the clergy and Kathy James our Congregational Specialist talked about generational divides and opportunities for our churches.  How do we minister to all of these different groups and spek their language in the midst?  We talked a lot about images.  We could easily recognize the logos from products or stores whether there were words or not.  We’re a visual society and the shorthand that our communication has become in many ways has bled over into the images that we see and know even if the actual writing is explicit or not. 

Then came the wise question of what image or icon or logo does the church have?  How does society recognize us?  The cross and flame wasn’t mentioned although I do think that’s one of the images for the UMC, but do people on the outside actually get that?  The cross in general, buddy Jesus, a traditional picture of a church, a pair of hands praying….none of those came to mind for us this morning discussing it.  What our motley crew worried about was that the image people might have of Christians right now is of people protesting funerals or others condemning and judging people.  So seriously, what would our logo/image/picture/icon be?

When I think of the “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are punished,” I can’t help but think of some of those images and icons that people may recognize us by.  Are they images of hate?  Are they images of middle class complacency?  Are they images of frowny faced people in suits and Sunday dresses?  What do you think?

I was happy to see people sporting their ashes on ESPN and Colbert last night.  There’s a fun witness.  Will you watch them differently?  Hold them to a different standard?  Expect more?  I had no problem taking the students to IHOP last night while we were still “ashed,” but I must admit, that it did give me pause about how we acted or how we were perceived by the folks working there or others eating.  When we have that sign/image/icon of the cross on our foreheads, people are watching.  We know people can see it.  We represent something and someOne when we wear our faith.

In our every day, we don’t wake up every morning and put our cross on our forehead.  Heck, the Matthew passage last night (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21) actually speaks out against practicing your piety before others and I completely agree.  I’m not saying you go stockpile ashes to begin this process every morning, but I am saying we shouldn’t just try to “act right” or live out our faith just when we have the sign of the cross on our heads.  We should dig deeper and show the world by our words, our acts, and our love that in the name of Jesus Christ they are FORGIVEN.  This crazy thing called Christianity is not a battle for Super Christian of the ages, but it’s a recognition that we can’t do it all by ourselves.  It’s a knowledge that we mess up, boy do we sometimes, but that there is One who walks with us and gives us new life. 

This forgiveness is available for each of us whether rich or poor, black or brown, lefty or righty, insider or outsider.  It’s a free gift unlike the Clinique bags that get quickly given out to the first wave of customers.  This is a free gift that never runs out and doesn’t expire.

So on this day after Ash Wednesday when our crosses have been washed away, what remains of our commitment to repentance and renewal?  What does God have in store for us this season?  What kind of visual do we as Christians offer the world?

If you could pick a universal picture or image to represent the church what would it be?  (No this is not a branding meeting where we’re going to put millions of dollars in and take the airwaves, but I’m curious as to what you name.)  Punishment or forgiveness?  Peace or hate?  I’m not saying that all of our images will be pretty or nice or clean, because I don’t believe that being the body of Christ is all roses and butterflies.  But I am saying that the images we project need to be real and they need to reflect the Gospel, not just what we’ve made it into.

this is every worship picture these days...wowzers...

Posted in Ash Wednesday, Faith, Music

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…

Posted in Ash Wednesday, Distractions, Entertainment, Faith, fasting, Life, Prayers, Sabbath

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