40 Words: “Darkness” (02.16.2016)

“The LORD has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud…” (1 Kings 8:12 NIV)

The Bible is full of “light and dark” metaphors: light is mostly good; dark is mostly, well, you get the picture…

This is so consistent that it can be tempting to make a rule of “light and dark”, and assume that darkness always equals some kind of negative or uncertainty. Then, when we get confronted in your life with something that somehow corresponds to darkness, or unknowing, or a cloud, we can too quickly jump to the conclusion that “this is not God.”

And yet, the Bible is also pretty clear that God is not always to be found in the light; sometimes, God is found in clouds, in darkness, in obscurity.

(The Bible tells me so…)

Following Jesus through Lent sometimes means following him into uncertainty. Jesus gets to the point in the Garden of Gethsemane when he cries out to God to take the impending cup of suffering from him.

God says, “No,” and Jesus faithfully accepts his path, believing that his God will ultimately vindicate him.

But there is that moment where he asks… There is that moment where it’s dark, and not light.

Twilight.

Choosing disciplines like silence and solitude means often to opt for knowing and experiencing less, not more, which is a kind of darkness, and in that darkness of our own we sometimes think that this a time of neglect or punishment or distance from God.

Yet, as Solomon prays in 1 Kings, God dwells in a dark cloud (or “deep darkness”), which means that when we enter the clouds…

…of Lent

… of suffering

… of loss

… of confusion

… of doubt

… God is not less present to us. He actually may be more present, if for no other reason than darkness deprives us of some of our human efforts. 

When we can’t see, we need to trust. 

And in the realm of faith and spirituality, trust tends to be a good thing.

Embrace the cloud. You may be surprised what (and who) you find there.

40 Words #2: “40” (2.11.2016)

UnknownSo, I’m blogging every day (except Sunday) of Lent.

Don’t expect too much.

I just want to put some thoughts out there; thoughts that resonate with me, and that might resonate with you.

Hopefully, they’ll give you something to think about.

Maybe they will draw you a little closer to God, and to your true self.

Today’s word is “forty” (okay, or “40”).

In other words, the length of our Lenten journey.

(Also, a pretty cool U2 song.)

Forty is a pretty significant number in the Bible: it’s the number of years Israel wanders in the desert, and the number of days Jesus, who is re-enacting Israel’s journey, spends in the wilderness.

Days or years, it’s a long time. Jesus got hungry in the wilderness. Israel got angsty.

But it occurred to me that 40 is significant for another reason.

Experts—people who know a lot of stuff—will tell you that it takes somewhere between 30 to 60 days to form a habit.

I’m no mathematician, but 40 falls somewhere in between both of those.

This is important because Lent is (potentially, anyway) about much more than giving up chocolate, or ice cream, or Netflix.

Lent can be about getting over brokenness in our lives; about shining a light on areas of our lives that we need to face.

So many of these areas of brokenness started out as habits.

And habits can be broken, and/or replaced by new ones.

Which takes about 30-40 days.

Which means that Lent is a great opportunity for you to sow some new habits. Which means you can sow some new character traits.

Are you willing to surrender your old habits? Are you willing to embrace something new?

These 40 days are your gift. This season is an opportunity.

+e

 

40 Words #1: “Ash”

1024px-Crossofashes

It’s Lent 2015.

Forty days of reflection and contemplation, surrender and sacrifice.

Or something like that.

I wanted to do something for Lent that would stretch me (don’t worry: I have my own practices of surrender and sacrifice, but I’m going to keep those between my family and me).

So each day during Lent, I’m going to publish a short blog/devotion wrapped around one word.

So, “40 Words.”

Each of these words represents some aspect of Lent to me. Some of them will be obvious, like today’s. Others may be more… “tangential”.

(Great word, “tangential”.)

I’ve chosen them, they are written down, and each day I’ll publish something in the morning: feel free to use it as a devotion or just a quick read at lunch.

I’m not promising anything profound; I’m just promising a presence.

So here we go.

ASH

Lent kicks off with “Ash Wednesday”. For many denominations and churches all over the world, people file into buildings of various style and size and hear readings about confession and remembrance. Songs are sung, and at some point people file up to the front of a room where they stand in front of a pastor or priest—someone “set aside” in the community to guide people, to administer sacraments, to represent them to God—who then dips his or her finger into a bowl of ashes (the burnt palm fronds from the previous years’ Palm Sunday) which are sometimes mixed with oil. The pastor/leader then will make the sign of the cross on the person’s forehead, usually saying something like, “Remember it’s from dust you have come, and to dust you will return; repent, and believe the Gospel” (or some combination thereof).

Up until a few years ago my particular faith tribe didn’t really remember Ash Wednesday or Lent, but after a few of us began engaging in the season (in particular Holy Week), the church decided to officially “making the journey.”

Ash, along with the saying, reminds me, well, of death. 

Death is something we don’t like to think about in our culture, but it’s the one thing that awaits us all. Our time on this earth is finite.

To me, ash reminds me that the life I have costs something. My affluence costs others. The food I eat costs either a life, or at the very least the time and efforts of someone, somewhere.

Ash reminds me that I’m nothing special; and yet I’m someone infinitely important.

I am loved by God. Loved on a visceral, guttural level.

A love that cost Jesus. 

And yet, I’m human. “Covered in earth and dirt.”

I stumble and fall. Limited and incapable of even living half of a day (if that) without falling victim to my pride, arrogance, narcissism, and self-centeredness.

Ash says that, somehow, I’m simultaneously both loved and flawed. 

And that’s okay.

Maybe today is about not covering up our flaws, but at the same time that God meets us right in the middle of them, not matter how serious they seem to be. 

+e

Lent is Coming (Don’t Look Busy)

Ash Wednesday is this week, which means that the season of Lent is upon us.

Lent is the season of the church that leads up to Easter. It is a time of preparation, meant to prepare us both to remember Jesus’ crucifixion as well as his resurrection. Historically, lent was a season where people who had left the church for one reason or another were re-integrated. The bottom line is that traditionally God’s people have used this season to reflect on areas of their lives that might need some “cleaning up”, and also to slow down in order to shed light on any new areas that might need addressing.

Part of lent is slowing down and strategically making space in your life to hear God’s voice. Usually this means “fasting” in some form or fashion.

But actually fasting—and lent—should be a little more than that. For many Christians, fasting is only half of the equation: the other half is engaging in or giving back resources, in the form of “time, talents, and treasures” that have been freed up by the fast.

So you might consider:

  • giving up lunch once a week, but then giving the money you saved to your local church or a local ministry
  • giving up Facebook or Netflix, but then giving the time you freed up to Bible study or a local mission or charity that needs help
  • giving up an hour of sleep in the morning, but then giving the time to prayer and meditation
  • giving up a snack and instead buying food that you can keep in your car to give to the hungry and homeless that you might encounter as you drive around

These are just a few examples, but I think you see the point. Lent isn’t just about giving up Chipotle or chocolate or ice cream; it’s really about carving up space to see God move in different ways. It’s about bringing some of our physical appetites under control so that we can give to needy folks. It’s about becoming aware of where we are still held captive by those same desires, and where we continually need God’s Spirit to help us, to refine us, to grow us into the people that He wants and needs us to be in His world.

I would encourage and even challenge you to be thoughtful and intentional over the next 40 days. Pick something that will open up space in your life for God to speak and move.

Personally, I am giving up a few things, one of which is Facebook (not a huge sacrifice for me, which is why there are multiple activities for me this year). But, I am also engaging in some activities that, God willing, will allow me to draw closer to God as well as to others.

(By the way, I will continue to write and publish over Lent, so feel free to subscribe here and get my blogs delivered straight to your inbox.)

If you’d like to share your ideas for Lent here, go right ahead. We’re listening. Otherwise (as Gandalf would say), “Keep it safe, keep it secret.”

May your Lenten journey be rich, and full of peace where you need it and challenge you where you need it as well.
+e

 

 

2015 Lenten Reflections

Well, we survived.

(At least for the most part.)

We have walked our walk, and made the 40-day journey. It began with Ash on skin and ended with an empty tomb.

We have reflected and yearned, gone hungry and sat in silence.

Some of us have woken up to even new areas of our lives where we are still “in bondage.”

But it’s over. We’re done. It’s Easter now, and time to engage with the power of God’s Spirit in a “resurrection life.” I’ve written about that before, but what I wanted to do for now is to jot down a few notes about my own 40-day journey, and maybe hear from you about yours.

MY SACRIFICE

When we started this journey, I encouraged you guys to thoughtfully choose something to give up, to “limit yourselves” in some way…

… I also encouraged you all to keep it a secret. 

I did that. I didn’t really tell anyone about my fast; however, since we are on the other side now, here’s what I did..

I decided to give up all media. That meant that for 6 days a week I watched no TV, listened to no music or podcasts, and visited no “news or entertainment” websites. Now, I had to do some of this for my work, so exceptions had to be made from time to time, but for the most part I was able to make this work. In the time that I gained back from this, I tried to add more prayer, and more reading of spiritual/theological books. On the “seventh day”, I “feasted,” meaning I listened to and watched whatever I wanted for 24 hours.

Here’s what I learned:

NO JOURNEY IS PERFECT

It’s hard to keep this up! As I said, I have to take in some media for my job, and sometimes that spilled over into mindless surfing for a few minutes until I could re-center. Further, sometimes I had to make decisions to be with my family—who were watcing a show of some kind—rather than maintain my fast.

There are always bumps in the road, but you have to constantly re-adust, re-commit and keep pesevering. It’s not going to be perfect, but you can still finish. The point is to not give up. Stay on the journey.

It’s easy to live in an “all-or-nothing” mentality, but spiritually-speaking it ultimately won’t get you very far. Spirituality is seldom (if ever) about “all or nothing.” It’s about staying centered in the midst of failure and disappointment. It’s about continuing to move forward even when you haven’t been perfect. It’s in the “in-between” places that we tend to grow the most.

YOU’D BE SURPRISED WHAT YOU DON’T MISS

As I began to “quiet down”, I was shocked with how much I simply wasn’t missing. Normally, I’m pretty addicted (maybe that’s the key word) to news websites, Tumblr, NPR, ESPN, etc., etc., but as I began to lower those voices, I was shocked with how much I didn’t miss those voices.

My normal life—my everyday conversations, interactions and all the challenges that sometimes accompanies them—were plenty to occupy my mind.

Sure, I missed some “big stories” (that somehow seldom seem to be as big as they first appear to be), but by and large people caught me up as was necessary.

I really didn’t miss all that much, and this was actually pretty surprising.

FASTING SOMETIMES EXPOSES MORE NEED FOR FASTING

When I first pulled back from some of the media I was engaging in, I dove into some fun theology books. However, a week or two into my journey, I suddenly had a nagging thought: “You know, books are a form of media as well.”

Well now…

What I began to realize was that sometimes ”surrending and getting quiet before God means really surrendering and getting quiet before GOd.” 

It doesn’t mean reading more Henri Nouwen.

Pulling back just a little sometimes exposes our need to pull back even more. We discover new ways in which we are distracting ourselves and refusing to listen to the deepest voice in our souls, the One that is calling us to our deepest, truest self.

There’s probably more, deeper things that happened during my time in the desert, but they may take a little time for me to process (and I may not even share them all here), but those were just a couple of things that I learned.

What about you? What was your Lenten season like?

Lent 2015: “The Long Quiet”

So, Lent starts Wednesday.

(We’ve been through this before.)

The Basics: 

  • “Lent” is a season of the church; it starts 40 days before Easter.
  • Historically, this time was set aside for people to prepare join (or, in many cases, rejoin) the church, which they would do on Easter Sunday.
  • To prepare for that really, really joyous day (membership/baptism or restoration), people would take the season of Lent to reflect on the areas of their lives that are in some way “sideways” or somehow out of whack.
  • To address these areas (or in many cases, to help identify them in the first place), it’s helpful to quiet down, to give up some parts of our lives (called “fasting”). Sometimes these things are luxuries (chocolate was always popular in my house growing up), but sometimes we give up—or at least significantly limit—every day parts of our lives too:
    • Coffee
    • Meat
    • Alcohol
    • Television
  • Another way to “surrender” during Lent is to just drastically reduce the amount of food we eat. The idea is to “waken” our spiritual senses by heightening our hunger (literal or otherwise). Sundays are considered “feast days”, meaning you can have the thing or activity on that day, but during the week, you should strive to keep your fast.

This isn’t about a performance. In fact, the most effect Lenten practices are kept secret.

It’s about shaking (or shocking?) ourselves out of our comfortable, anesthesized existence to face (and maybe begin to deal with) things that are wrecking our lives. We fast because most of the time these things are hidden from our face, and we need something to wake us up.

Like being hungry.

Or not watching TV (including Netflix, etc.).

A Few Suggestions:

  • Try it. Prayerfully consider giving something for 40 days and just see what happens. 
  • Share it, but not with everyone. Talk some members of your small community, but don’t necessarily broadcast it on Facebook. “Public Fasting” can feed our egos just as easily as a selfie can.
  • Feast. On Sundays, reengage as an act of worship and celebration.
  • Journal it. Note what God reveals to you during this time. (Note: this does not necessarily mean “blog it” (see above).

May your Lenten journey be rich.

Lent Reflection #6 :: Jesus Uncomfortable Healings

I’m probably alone in this, but sometimes I feel like Jesus has a funny way of healing people.

To my eyes and ears, Jesus’ healings have a hard edge to them.

For instance, we are told that one time Jesus heals a man with a “withered hand” on the Sabbath, and the religious experts are pretty ticked off about it (Mark 3v1-6). There are some interesting aspects to the story:

  • according to the text at least, the man hasn’t asked Jesus to heal him; in fact, Jesus initiates the whole process (in front of the community in the synagogue)
  • the man’s life isn’t at stake (even for Pharisees, saving life on the Sabbath was actually permitted)

There’s a sense in which Jesus is standing there, and commands the guy (who is not supposed to be in the synagogue), “Get in here and stand up in front of everyone so they can see what’s wrong with you.”

Can you sense the social awkwardness?

What begins to emerge is the possibility that Jesus is essentially using this man’s affliction and subsequent healing as an example, as a way to push the religious authorities into a corner (and to begin to plot Jesus’ death).

And all of this happens very publicly, in front of everyone. The man is healed, but first the man has to stand up in front of his community.

To me, it’s very tense. Why couldn’t Jesus have privately healed the man? Why couldn’t he have pulled the Pharisees and the Herodians aside and performed this act of political theatre in front of them alone?

Why subject the man to this public scrutiny?

A few chapters later, Mark relates the story of a woman who has been suffering—”bleeding”—for twelve years. Without going too deeply into social laws of the time, the cultural laws maintaining purity at this time were quite strict; this poor woman would have been strictly and severely ostracized.

So in a way you can understand her desperation to get to Jesus; to be made whole again. She reaches out her hand and grasps the edges of his cloak (or prayer shawl) and, “immediately”, we are told, her illness is gone.

Awesome. And then she goes away and is restored to life and community, right?

Almost. Not before Jesus very publicly calls attention to her. 

Before her ultimate restoration, Jesus makes sure the entire group of people knows that she is there, and that she has received a healing.

Again, part of me wonders why Jesus didn’t pull her aside, privately bless her and then restore her to the life.

Why the public display?

The last healing story actually comes out of John’s gospel. Jesus finds a man by a pool believed to have healing properties. The man had been there for thirty-eight years. Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be made well?”

The man explains why he can’t get into the pool in time, and Jesus responds by saying, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.”

For some reason, on top of all the very public displays of Jesus’ healings, this one has been sticking with me.

And it’s all because of the mat. 

I don’t know the mat looked like. If it was comfortable; if it was threadbare and worn; if it was donated. I don’t know any of the details.

But I do know what it represented.

It represented the man’s weakness.

It represented his brokenness.

It represented his need for restoration; for health.

And Jesus tells him to pick it up and take it with him. 

If I put myself in the man’s place, I would have longed so deeply to leave the mat behind. Who wants to carry around the reminder of our past? Our brokenness? Our shame?

But instead, Jesus tells him, “No: actually this is the thing you have to bring with you. I know you’d like to leave this part of your life behind, but people need to see this. They need to ask, ‘Hey what’s with the mat?’ And you have to tell them your story.”

Looking back over these three stories, Jesus’ there’s always another agenda operating around Jesus’ healings. They are never “the endpoint.” If they were, it’s possible for Jesus to be considered more of magician—a first century “House”—than the Messiah. The healings are there to make theological points, to tell stories, to point people towards God’s restoration agenda for the entire world. Not to say that it’s great to be healed, but we need to remember that God’s (and Jesus’) agenda is always bigger than our own individual situations, and the healings are always a part of that agenda.

So maybe Jesus has done something for you. Maybe there’s some brokenness in your past (gosh I know there’s some in mine).

And maybe what you really want to do is to leave your mat behind. 

But instead Jesus is telling you, “Pick it up; pick up your past. Pick up your brokenness, the things you’ve seen, the things you’ve done, and even though I have restored you, tell others about them.”

Obviously, just because you carry your mat with you does not mean that you’re still crippled. But somehow you still have to tell people about it.

Live your life in such a way that people go, “Hey what’s with the mat?”

What does your mat represent? Have you left it behind? I think in so many ways Jesus is saying to us, “Go back and get it; carry it with you. Not in a shaming way, but in a way that helps others.”

peace

*e

================================

Lent Reflection #5: The Cross Creates Communities

 (1622) by Simon Vouet; Church of Jesus, Genoa

The Crucifixion (1622) by Simon Vouet; Church of Jesus, Genoa

Jesus’ mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene stood near the cross. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that time on, this disciple took her into is house.

Mary is watching her son die. In his final moments, as a small community gathers around him, Jesus commends his mother to the care of one of the Twelve (possibly John, the author of this Gospel). He has to do this because at this point none of the rest of his family—not even his brother James—believes in him.

God has always had a people. From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus doesn’t just heal individuals, but he creates a community around himself. Even at the cross, we see Jesus gathering people and creating networks of care.

For some reason—and I really don’t know why—we resist so much of this. We pull away from community, sometimes because of time or priorities, sometimes because of hurts, sometimes because we don’t like what we’re hearing about ourselves.

But we really need to fight against this isolating tendency.

Because someday there will come a need: a phone all that changes everything; a meeting that dries up the future; an email that shakes the foundation of everything you are.

Someday, it’s going to be dark, not just outside, but maybe inside your spirit as well.

And then where will you turn?

We like to think that we exist in some glorious vacuum: some of us alone as individuals; some of us as nuclear families.

But the truth of the matter—even revealed at the Cross—is that we are in desperate need of other human beings.

So,  this Lent:

  • are you gathered around the cross of Jesus with other folks? are you committed to them, and they to you?
  • if not, is there something you need to do to restore yourself to that community?

This is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard about the Church, and this deep need that we have for community. Watch it and think—really think—about these words.

 "Shelter" by Jars of Clay
To all who are looking down, holding onto hearts still wounding

For those who’ve yet to find it, the places near where love is moving

Cast off the robes you’re wearing, set aside the names that you’ve been given

May this place of rest in the fold of your journey bind you to hope
You will never walk alone 
In the shelter of each other, we will live, we will live

In the shelter of each other, we will live, we will live

Your arms are all around us 
If our hearts have turned to stone there is hope, we know the rocks will cry out

And the tears aren’t ours alone let them fall into the hands that hold us
Come away from where you’re hiding set aside the lies that you’ve been living

May this place of rest in the fold of your journey bind you to hope
that we will never walk alone

If there is any peace, if there is any hope 
We must all believe, our lives are not our own
We all belong
God has given us each other
And we will never walk alone
© 2010 Bridge Building / Pogostick Music (BMI). All rights for the world on behalf of Pogostick Music administered by Bridge Building.

peace

*e

=============================

Lent Reflection #4: Broken Bottles

Christ in the House of Simon by Dieric Bouts

Christ in the House of Simon by Dieric Bouts

Shortly before Jesus is arrested, Mark records this dinner that he attends.

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she had done will be told in remembrance of her.”

SO. There is a lot going on here: The cost of the perfume, the identity of the woman, Simon, Judas, poverty, etc.

But I want to talk just for a minute about perfume bottles.

The contents of that bottle were valuable—nard we think was a pretty rare and valuable spice.

And they were to be offered to Jesus, to anoint him, to prepare him for burial.

In a sense what was in the bottle was going to be offered in worship to Jesus.

But first, the bottle had to be broken.

First, glass, or clay needed to be shattered. Only then can the gift flow out to Jesus’ feet. Only then can the fragrance of those gifts spread throughout the entire house, forcing people to take notice of something that is going on in the midst. Without the breaking, the bottle may remain attractive; it may be a really great looking bottle, and it may even be tempting to believe that the bottle of perfume is fulfilling its purpose by sitting on the shelf looking great.

But it’s not until the bottle is broken can the true beauty of its gift be received and shared. 

There is a strange tension in what we bring to Jesus as well. We all desire to bring him our best: our voices, our thoughts, our service, our hands and feet.

But before we can do that, we have to suffer the breaking.

I don’t mean a shameful breaking; I don’t mean a “breaking” in the sense that casts aside. I mean a breaking that merely releases what we have to give. A breaking that allows us to bring the deepest and truest gift of ourselves to the world and to Christ.

A releasing of our gifts for the sake of Jesus. A releasing of our gifts in such a way that those “in the house” with us—the people we are in community with, our brothers and sister—notice.

“Something has just happened.”

blessings

*e

==================================================

Lent Reflection 3 :: The Thing About Crosses, pt. 2

Last week, I wrote about the public nature of “bearing our crosses”; how they aren’t easily hidden, and are pretty obvious to people. I challenged you all to take up a cross with someone, and share it with someone. Maybe you did that; maybe you didn’t.

That’s the nature of the interwebs, I guess.

But I thought some more about crosses this week (it being Lent, and all), and something struck me from the other side of the equation. 

I remember sitting with a friend of mine once who was going through some really heavy, trying times. We were sitting outside at a local coffee shop (because where else do pastors hang out <snark>), and she was just crying and crying. Then she began apologizing because of the crying. It was a vicious circle.

I stopped her, as best I could, and said, “Please don’t apologize for your tears. You have to understand—for pastors, these tears are a precious gift to us, because they are your deepest fears and hurts. You are giving them to us to share and to care for, and they are precious to us. This is a gift; don’t ever apologize for your tears.”

In a letter to the church in Galatia, Paul the apostle wrote, “Carry each other’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ” (6:2 CEB).

I’m used to thinking about “burdens” in a very tangible sense (in fact, I preached on it once): bills, sicknesses, and physical needs. This is true and necessary, and it remains true and necessary. Reaching out to help people walk through life is no small thing, and every time we help our brothers and sisters, we are truly “fulfilling the law of Christ.”

But the main “burden” that Jesus tells us to carry for ourselves is the cross. 

(See where I’m going here?)

So as we (and the folks around us) take up our crosses—our own obvious instruments of pain and torture that we experience—at the same time, we need to be reaching out and helping others bear those same crosses.

So last week, I was thinking about what it takes to share the nature of our own crosses.

This week, I’m thinking about what it takes to bear others folks’ crosses.

Someday, someone may offer you the gift of their tears, their hurts, and their shame. How will you respond?

Will you treat it like a gift? A cross that you help carry?

Or an inconvenience, an embarrassment?

I guess in a way I’m saying that we don’t walk this journey towards Jerusalem alone; we need to help each other, and share what we can, so that we can all get there.

Like you didn’t know this one was coming….. 

But this is so very tasty too….

 

peace and blessings

*e

===============================================