Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday Thoughts

Perhaps no set of readings produces a more incongruous way of thinking than our reading from Matthew 6 this day and our intentional marking of our foreheads with the sign of the cross. I cannot begin to tell you how many times parishioners have asked me if we are being hypocrites by participating in the service. Then there is the angst over whether to leave the cross in place or wipe it off before we go about our days. What are we doing?

Pay attention to what Jesus says in our readings. He does not say “Don’t.” He says “beware,” “be careful,” “be on the lookout.” Technically, I suppose, Matthew records Jesus as saying prosechete, but He is not saying “do not.” You see, God is always concerned with our hearts. Why do we do what we do? Do we really love Him? Do we really repent and want to follow Him? If the answer in our heart of hearts is “Yes!” he is a merciful and forgiving God. Think of David. He did terrible things, yet he is often described as a man after God’s own heart. Abraham and Sarah? They take matters into their own hands rather than trusting God, and still He made their descendents too numerous to count. Peter? Is there any spiritual hero more like us? He had amazing mountaintop experiences with his Lord, but Peter had some terrible moments recorded for us as well.

So why are you here this day? Why do you come forward to be marked with ashes and reminded that you are dust and to dust you shall return? If you come forward hoping the priest or others here will think you are pious, you are coming forward for the wrong reason. Be careful! If you are coming forward because you can stroll into work or school late with an excused tardy because you attended a “religious event,” you are coming forward for the wrong reason. Be careful! If you are coming forward so that you will become the focus of the office gossip, you are coming forward for the wrong reasons. Be careful!

Ideally, as we go through this day, people will nod their head and say, “ah, of course, that’s why you are the way you are.” How we live our lives among the people with whom we interact testifies as to whether or not we are Christians, not some stupid mark on our foreheads. If you find yourself in the uncomfortable position this day of having family, friends, co-workers, or others saying to you “You’re a Christian? Really? I never would have guessed,” then give thanks to God that He has given you the opportunity to see yourself as others see you. If people are surprised we are Christians, then we need to do a self-examination, we need to repent, and we need to give thanks to God for loving even us. Better still, we thank Him for using people like ourselves to carry forth His message of love, His message of hope, His message of mercy to the world! And the season of Lent calls us into that kind of self-examination where we endeavor to see ourselves as He sees us. Yes, it can be uncomfortable. Yes it can be painful. But He does not leaves us as we deserve.

The other call the Church makes on our lives during this season is one of a deepening relationship with God. Many of us will try to be more intentional in our prayer life. Some of us will try to go to worship every week. Some of us may study devotions or Scripture. A few of us may fast or practice other spiritual disciplines all in an effort to walk closer with God. And so, we as pastors, encourage parishioners to take on as well as give up during Lent. As your pastor I am less concerned with what you give up than how you work on your relationship with your Lord and Savior. Yes, I want you turning from the idols in your lives, but I remain convinced that as you intentionally walk with, talk with, and study God, you will simply lose interest in the idols of your life.

I read this week that some bishops were encouraging us to give up cell phones, mp3’s, laptops, and other techie stuff during Lent in order to reduce our carbon footprint. It’s an ok suggestion, if we are doing it to repent of the idols in our lives. But if we are doing it to stand out among our friends, peers, co-workers, and family, we should be careful. Why not, though, change the music on your iPod from whatever you listen to currently to a Christian version of that? Words of hope in rap? In heavy metal? In pop music? Yes, it exists. Why not use it to reach those around you, and maybe even yourself, instead of trying to stand out for your deep sacrifice? Perhaps, instead of texting “lol” and whatever other nonsense we text 6-8000 times a month, maybe toss in a few “God luvs u”? Certainly there are movies which give us entrĂ©e with others to share our faith (Avatar, Legion, and The Book of Eli come immediately to mind), probably there are computer games. Why not let God, creator and ruler of all things seen and unseen, use your interests, your fun, your very life to reach others? Part of that deepening relationship is trusting Him to use us as is best for us. What could be better than playing a small part in the salvation history of the world? Where is He calling you to work for Him?

Brothers and sisters, we live in busy times. We live in uncertain times. We live in an age that is increasingly hostile to God message of love as evidenced by the cross and His testimony of power at that wonderful Easter event. For the better part of 325 days a year, you and I are immersed in a culture that resists the One who would save and redeem it. But for 40 days, for only 1/9 of our year, you and I are called to be extra intentional in our relationship with God. We are called to examine our lives, to repent where we sin against God and others, to look with awe at the love He demonstrated for us and all His people throughout history, and go forth into the world bursting with the joy of a people redeemed! Yes, we are dust, and yes, we shall return to dust. But in between those events, you and I are tasked with the glorious responsibility of sharing His redeeming love and His unfathomable mercy with those in the world around us. We are tasked, as the prophet Isaiah reminded us a couple weeks ago, of living a life that testifies to the love of God. It is a love which proclaims freedom to the enslaved, joy to those who sorrow, and peace to those who worry. And it can be spoken by the mute, heard by the deaf, and seen by the blind because He can, in truth, overcome all things, even our death. I pray, in this season of Lent, that we will all hear His voice, go where He leads, and draw others to His eternal joy.


Friday, February 12, 2010

I will praise you with my dying breath

Some years ago, Gavin McGrath once mentioned in a systematics class (of all places) that the singular greatest honor ever visited upon clergy is the opportunity to shepherd parishioners from this life to the next. “There is no honor greater,” he pounded in to us. I must confess, I have found his assertion true. And I was reminded this magificent day why it is.

One of the spiritual patriarchs of my church is, as we pray this week, changing from glory into glory. Norm is a spiritual patriarch against his will. He would be the first to tell us all that none of this was his idea. Mostly it was his bride’s. Maybe she nagged God into it, maybe it was God's plan all along. He is always humble and self-deprecating in the face of such praise, but, by virtue of his life and tenure, he became a patriarch in the parish of St. Alban’s.

Norm is dying of cancer. He has chosen not to fight it and extend his life two months. He has chosen, instead, to go to hospice. As I was sitting on the couch this morning, we reached a quiet moment in our visit. It was during a quiet moment that a nurse walked in and missed seeing me. “Are you ok, Norm” “Are you afraid of dying, Norm?” “Would you like me to get our chaplain?” “We want you comfortable, and you cannot be comfortable if you’re afraid.”

Norm told her he was fine and that he had a good bargain with his Lord. “A bargain?” she asked. “A bargain.” said he. “What kind of bargain have you made with your god?” she wanted to know (and so did I, I must admit). Norm responded, “I trust Him, and He takes care of the rest, even death.” But Norm was not done. “Do you trust Him?” he pressed. “I’m not sure.” she confessed. “Well, I hurt too much to continue this conversation, but my priest here can help you find out why you don’t and see why you should. Talk with him.” he responded with finality.

After apologizing for not seeing me and repeatedly telling me that she was not trying to kick me to the curb by bringing in a chaplain, I got a word in edgewise. “Do you trust Him?” She confessed that she was not sure. She deals with death on a daily business. Death is ever present with her job. Sometimes the deaths are good. Sometimes the deaths are painful. She just is not quite sure whether she believes that Jesus was and is who He said He was and is, and so she is not sure what to make of death. I won’t relay any more of our conversation. Her struggles are very real, and I think they are best left unpublicized. Those who know me can probably guess at the conversation. Her’s is a hard job without faith. My guess is, if she does not find it, she will be forced to get a job elsewhere in the coming years. Without the hope of the risen Christ, her job is smply too hard to do, day in and day out.

But when she had left, I laughed at Norm. “What?” he asked grumpily. I just smiled and reminded him of some previous conversations where he had explained to me some of his deep thoughts. He shrugged, “I wasn’t worried for me. I was a bit worried for her, but I was mostly worried about all those that she takes care of.” He continued, “If she does not begin to learn that there is no good death and that God weeps at each one of our deaths, she will never be a great caregiver. She’ll just be somebody who gives food and medicine to the dying. She will make the dying worse for her patients, and where’s the hope or fun in that?” “Well, thank you for letting me see that.” I replied. “See what?” he brushed aside my thanks. “The Gospel so well distilled.” He turned away with a “that wasn’t anything big. It was just the truth.” I nodded and said to myself that nothing truer has ever been spoken.

As Christians, we so often stand at the grave of a loved one and sing our Alleluias after they have passed from this life to the next. But every now and then, if we are so lucky and so honored, we get to see the loved ones do the same, before they ever enter their own tomb. And so, this day, I give thanks and glory to God for the life and coming death of my brother Norm. And I give thanks for the grace that enabled him to praise God and think of others, even when death's shadow was so close at hand. And I pray that God will "give us faith to see in death the gate of eternal life, so that in quiet confidence we may continue our course on earth, until, by your call, we are reunited with those who have gone before; through Jesus Christ our Lord."


Saturday, February 6, 2010

Growing up in Christ . . .

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. St. Paul, as we have been discussing for the past three weeks, is addressing a problem that often crops up in Christian circles. For the better part of a chapter and a half, Paul has reminded us and them that we are called together as a body. That body is made up of individuals just as a body is made up of limbs and organs. Each of those individuals, Paul reminds us, is gifted by God so that the entire body might fulfill His purpose. Unfortunately, we are seldom satisfied with that understanding. We, like the Corinthians, want a splashy gift. We want a gift with a “wow” factor. And so, like the Corinthians, we begin to rank the gifts and ask for, not what He wants us to have, but what we want and value. And so, ever the teacher, Paul reminds us that we are like children. What does he mean?

Think back, hopefully, to when you were a kid or when your own children were young. Children seem to know instinctively how to go about getting what they want. Initially, they cry about their needs. They cry when hungry, or when their diaper needs to be changed, or when they do not feel good. Then they move to nagging. Can I have a piece of candy, please? Please? Please? Please buy me that tow. I have been so good. And let's not talk about the tantrum/turtle on the floor designed to embarass us into capitulating to their desires. Sometimes, as they age, they move to the not-so-subtle hinting. Wouldn’t some ice cream taste great now? You know, if you bought me a car, I could run errands for you and save you time? Finally, if our parents have done their jobs or we have done our job as parents, the children begin to understand that the world does not revolve around them. At some point, the children begin to realize that we need to plan for our lives. Ice cream might taste good today, but do I want to spend the money on that or a movie? Ice cream might taste good today, but do I want to waste the calories on it? Long term goals become the focus rather than short term needs. As St. Augustine would say nearly 2 centuries after Paul, selfishness or self-centeredness gives way to self-discipline (Can you imagine either’s thoughts about our current economic mess in light of this teaching?).

Part of being a mature Christian is understanding how the body of Christ works. When self interest becomes the focus rather than the love of God or of the neighbor, then we are acting spiritually immature. Similarly, when we find ourselves envious of the gifts of others or even throwing ourselves a pity party because we do not think we really matter, we are acting spiritually immature. St, Paul reminds each one of us that we are called grow into spiritual adulthood. As we contemplate the work done for us, and the cost, we should find ourselves trying hard to put away the childish things and to put on adulthood. Yes, we will still make mistakes. Yes, we may find ourselves making impulse decisions (for now we see in a mirror, dimly), but we know that one day we will see and know Him as clearly as He has seen and known us. But the joy is that He loved us even when we were most unlovable (throwing tantrums, concerned only for our needs), and still He loved us perfectly and made it possible that we might one day grow up and receive His full blessing and fulfill all the plans and hopes He has for us.