Wednesday marks another observance of Ash Wednesday and begins the season of the church year known as Lent – 40 days of denying ourselves fun things like chocolate and gossiping. It’s a bit of a drag, but it’s a predictable drag.
We’ll begin, ready for the test of endurance. We’ll hear the story of Jesus, alone in the wilderness, being tempted by Satan, and we’ll say to ourselves, “If Jesus can resist temptation for 40 days on an empty stomach, surely I can forego a cup of coffee here and there.” But by the time Easter arrives we’re counting down the days until we can again indulge in whatever enjoyable item or practice we’ve gone without for what then seems more like a year than a mere 40 days.
Lent comes and goes from our lives with little, if any, evidence that it ever came at all.
Lent is fun to dabble in. We feel superior to our non-Christian friends who think denying dessert in the name of faith for 40 days isn’t worth the hassle. But the truth is, we secretly agree with them, and that’s why on Easter Sunday we find ourselves, year after year, eating extra dessert and another piece of chocolate, drinking an extra cup of coffee, and calling our nosiest friends to hear the juicy gossip we’ve missed.
What’s so special about Lent anyway? Why should we even bother ourselves with a season of self-denial, especially if very little has changed by Easter Sunday?
The historical root of observing Lent is complicated. We know the practice of observing Lent began in the early church. The meaning, practice, and length of the season, however, shifted through the generations.
Irenaeus of Lyons wrote of a season of self-denial that lasted a few days in the second century. The Council of Nicea (325 CE) discussed a season of fasting observed by the church that lasted 40 days. It’s unclear whether this practice was just for converts preparing for baptism on Easter Sunday or if it was for the church as a whole. Needless to say it soon became a part of the entire church’s annual movement through the seasons of the church year. By the sixth century, Gregory the Great established Ash Wednesday as the beginning of the Lenten season in order to secure the 40-day time span for the season (i.e. Ash Wednesday is exactly 40 days before Easter if you don’t count the Sundays).
As United Methodists, we’ve seen a revival of this observance during the past 50 or 60 years. Ash Wednesday is observed by more and more congregations and is a very meaningful reminder of our mortality and need for God’s transforming love.
But the fact that the season of Lent has an interesting history doesn’t necessarily make it special. So what is the meaning(s) behind the observance of the season?
For starters, just as Lent was a season that prepared early converts for baptism, we are offered the chance to spend a season remembering our baptism and growing more and more aware of the ways in which we need to grow more and more into the likeness of Christ. Lent is not merely a season where we watch and admire the journey Jesus makes to the cross. It’s not a season where we simply remember what Jesus did for us on the cross. Lent is a season that demands we move from the place of onlooker or admirer to the place where we share in Jesus’ journey for ourselves. Lent is the annual remembrance of what it means to share in Jesus’ death so that we might share in his resurrection.
So when you opt to give something up for Lent, why don’t you add something in its place that helps you grow in your faith? Below are a few ideas of ways you can observe this Lenten season in meaningful and (hopefully) transformative ways:
Thomas Merton reminds us that growing in holiness is essentially growing more and more human. God became flesh and lived the human experience. And as we grow in our humanness, we become more and more aware of those around us who are hurting, who are in need, and who need to know the love of God that knows no boundaries. So we become more holy as we become more human because we learn how to be embraced by and share God’s love with others.
Lent is the perfect training season for such a journey toward holiness. So I hope you will spend the next 40 days aware of your own mortality and God’s redemptive grace in your life. I hope you’ll find moments and set aside time to be aware of God’s presence in your life. And I hope you’ll truly commit yourself to live a holy Lent.
I’m writing this column in the early evening on a Saturday on a day in which you would have sworn Spring had started to spring forth in Middle Georgia. It was about 62 degrees today and very sunny. So my wife, 2 year old daughter, and I decided to spend the afternoon enjoying the glory of creation at the park. Little did I know this day would serve to offer a profound lesson on the subtle ways sin is always present in our lives and just how much we’re in need of God’s grace.
It all started when the three of us arrived at the park and made the long walk from the parking lot to the playground. We brought along a rubber ball that is just smaller than a basketball in case my daughter grew bored with the playground and, in typical 2 year old fashion, wanted to move on to another task. We hadn’t been at the park more than 5 minutes or so when a young, African-American boy — probably around 9 years old — came up to us and asked if he could play with our ball. I thought this was a bit bold on his part since we didn’t know him and he didn’t know us. But there he stood dressed in shabby clothes, with shoes untied, and the remnants of his snack still on his face wanting me to hand over my daughter’s ball. When I said she wasn’t very good at sharing, he quickly offered to play with her. I laughed, made up some excuse about why that wouldn’t work, and went to return the ball to our car before he pled his case any further.
Most any parent would probably react that way. You don’t want to test a territorial toddler. You don’t want bigger kids playing with your toddler because they might get hurt. You don’t want strange kids coming up offering to join your private family play date. But walking away from the scene I knew that wasn’t the real reason I didn’t hand over the ball or my daughter to play — the real reason was that I had sized that boy up as a wild, little hooligan who would probably steal or destroy my daughter’s toy. And if I’m really being honest, the color of his skin and his shabby clothes didn’t help his case.
The boy was attending a birthday party in the park and there were probably 10-15 other kids running around playing — much of it was a little rough for a 2 year old to be caught in the middle of. But my wife and kept a close watch on my daughter and never let her outside of an arm’s length from where we were on the playground — even if it meant climbing on the equipment with her.
A little while later we climbed the big piece of playground equipment to the very top where one of its five different stations of slides were. As we reached the top, the same boy was sitting at the top of the slide as another boy he was playing with quickly went down the slide ahead of him. I smiled but my stomach tightened up a little. Would the little boy be wild and rough? Should I worry about my daughter’s safety? Would he get the hint that a toddler was anxiously waiting to go down the slide after him so this wasn’t a good time to linger for too long? You can imagine my reaction when the boy looked at my daughter and asked her if she wanted to go down with him. I tried to politely tell him that it was okay and she could wait her turn. Before I could get the words out of my mouth he reached for her and she climbed into his lap and the two of them were off out of my reach.
My wife was waiting at the bottom and was a little surprised to see my daughter making the turns of the slide in the arms of a strange kid who all we knew about was that he had no shame in asking to play with another kid’s toy. At the bottom, he carefully got off the slide and helped my daughter off. Before he ran off he reached into his pocket and gave her a toy ring that was a party favor all the kids received. She was thrilled while her parents sheepishly smiled and thanked this oddly generous little boy.
And then it hit me — my daughter knows nothing about things like race and poverty and separate but equal divisions in our culture. All she knows is that kids are meant to be played with. Things like labels on clothing or skin colors really don’t matter too much if the shared desire to play is there.
But before you think this is just an overly sentimental column on the innocence of children, there’s more.
It also occurred to me that one day she would learn about things like race, poverty, brand labels, and cultural division — and much of that learning will come from watching and listening to me. Here I can’t even trust an enormously kind and generous kid because the color of his skin and the clothing he’s wearing lead me to believe he may not be the most deserving person of my trust.
Sadly we live in a world where things like race and poverty are seen more often as political ammunition instead of the very real signs of human brokenness that they are. Fifty years or so of progress can’t erase and very real and present sin that continues to plague us — namely, that we are to fear and judge those who don’t look like us. So we pretend like we don’t hear the words that follow statements like, “I’m not racist but…” And we act as though we don’t notice when we clutch our wallets or purses just a little tighter when someone who “looks suspect” walks by. And we pretend like it’s no big deal that our blood pressure goes up a little when we hear music with loud bass or that we do a double-take when we see an interracial couple out to dinner together.
I thank God that Ash Wednesday is this week. I need to remember my own mortality because there are moments when I think I’m superior. I need to confess my sins and spend some time looking inward at the ways in which sin is still present in my life — even if it’s small, quiet, and easily justifiable ways. I need to bring out of the darkness and shed light on the ways in which I am formed by the culture to fear those who look different from me so that I might have the eyes of a two year old who only sees people for who they are — beautiful creatures made in the image of God for the purposes of sharing life and play together.
Needless to say Lent may start on Wednesday, but I’m already well into the spirit of the season.
As a United Methodist pastor just three years out of seminary, it is a daunting task to go into a local church and teach people the ins and outs of what it means to be a Christian in the Wesleyan tradition. Adding to the difficulty of the task is the fact that so many people who occupy pews in our United Methodist churches come from varying backgrounds — some are raised Baptist, others have left the Catholic church, some were Baptist and then married a Presbyterian and found the United Methodist Church to be a “compromise church,” others are working on their third or fourth denominational affiliation. Being a Christian these days can be complicated considering how The United Methodist Church is for so many a “big tent” tradition where folks from all sorts of backgrounds can find a home.
I am currently serving in South Georgia which means I’m serving right around the right hand side of the buckle of the Bible Belt — a setting where Calvinism in both the traditional and neo sense is very much alive, well, and prominent in religious culture. So when I was pointed toward Don Thorsen’s little book, Calvin vs. Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice, I was thrilled to find a book that might help me undertake this monumental task of clarifying what it meant to be a Christian in the Wesleyan tradition.
And I was NOT disappointed.
Not only did I read this book, I taught it in a Sunday School setting. Our group was largely made up of upwardly mobile 30, 40, and early 50-somethings. On the first day we did an experiment to see how many denominational traditions were represented in our group and we found that only 4 out of 20 of us were “cradle Methodists.” 80% of our group had spent time in another denomination. So that became the launching pad whereby we jumped into Thorsen’s concise, yet comprehensive work.
I cannot begin to describe the thrill a pastor can feel when topics like the sovereignty and love of God are debated (Ch. 1, God: More Love Than Sovereignty). I cannot tell you how exhilarating it is to have people passionately talk about the power of grace in their lives even when they do not realize it (Ch. 4, Grace: More Prevenient than Irresistible). And then for a group to be encountered with what it means to live a life of holiness marked by the love of God and our neighbor (Ch. 6, Spirituality: More Holiness than Mortification)? Well, you get my point. Seeing the light bulbs go off as people grew in both clarity and conviction about why they are uniquely Christian in the Wesleyan tradition is an experience Methodist pastors long to experience.
Thorsen’s work is accessible to both clergy and laity alike. And despite the adversarial cover and title, he is very hospitable to Calvin. At the same time he makes no bones about what makes Wesley’s perspective unique and, in the end, superior. As Thorsen reminds us, “From Wesley’s perspective, there should be no ‘half a Christian’ — that is, one who receives justification by faith but fails to go on toward sanctification by faith” (p. 82). In other words, believing the right stuff and agreeing with the right stances does not make us Christian if our lives do not reflect the holiness of God. Thorsen reminds us that Wesley’s emphasis on practice and growing in grace more fully tells the story of what it means to be a Christian. The wonder of being a Christian is working out our salvation, empowered by God’s grace and in union with the church made up of fellow sojourners, and lived in a spirit of humility marked by a distinct love for God and our neighbor.”
In just under 150 pages, Don Thorsen writes a brilliant account of Wesleyan theology for both the new and more seasoned Christian. He deals with the matters of God, sin, grace, salvation, holiness, the Church, and how we live the beliefs we profess in remarkably clear and direct ways. It has been a book that will have a reserved spot on my bookshelf for years to come and in many ministry settings yet to come. So I strongly recommend you not only read this book yourself, but include a small group of friends in your reading as well. And that advice doesn’t just come from me, I have 20 friends who would gladly agree.
Last week I came across two instances where a discussion arose about the relationship between the demise of the church in America and the demise of nuclear families. The argument in both forums went something like this:
Demise of the family unit –> Demise of the church –> Demise of Christian values –> Demise of society as a whole
Essentially we can blame the moral decay of our society on the lack of Christian values that permeate our culture. We can also blame the decline of the Church in America on the decline of the family unity, aka the nuclear family.
Now this is not a post designed to debate the fact that morality in America is shifty at best — it just is. It’s not a post to debate whether or not a healthy and loving nuclear family can raise children to be healthy and contributing members of society — studies show this is often true. This isn’t even a post to debate whether or not the church in America is in a season of decline — the numbers tell that story just fine.
The hope of this post is to remind us that by virtue of our baptism and the historic role of the Church in forming communities of faith, we’ve never (ever) considered the nuclear family to be the most important unit in society.
Brothers and sisters in Christ: Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy Church. We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.
This is the introduction to the service of baptism in The United Methodist Church. One thing you’ll notice is there’s no mention of a nuclear family the way it’s understood in contemporary American society. There’s a reason for this: as Christians we believe that through baptism, we are offered the grace of a new, and much larger family than your nuclear family. Parents who bring their children for baptism in a community of faith do so with the hope that they will not be alone on their in raising their children. And congregations are asked questions like:
Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include [this child/person] now before you in your care?
And then, through God’s grace, they respond:
With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround [this child/person] with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.
But this isn’t anything new in the Christian tradition. Numerous passages in Scripture tell us that the community of faith is called by God to care for those who have no family at all — widows, orphans, and immigrants. Those who have no family in this world, can in fact, find family in the Church. The motherless can find mothers. And the childless can adopt children to love and care for. On our very best days we can participate in God’s redemption of circumstances and relationships that are damaging and hurtful — even within the nuclear family. And family lines can be drawn and redrawn all by the power of God’s grace.
So if you ever hear anyone say the Church’s role is to promote the nuclear family in American in order to preserve some vague notion of Christian values, know that we are called to something much larger than that. We are called to the Church — to adopt families and individuals, the share and the grace of holy water, and to live Spirit-filled lives that care about things bigger and grander than just worrying about whether or not our culture looks differently than it did 50 or 100 years ago.
And there are people yet to join our family and share in the grace of life in Christ with a community of love and forgiveness and service — widows, orphans, nuclear families, single people, immigrants, children, and adults. The family drawn by lines of blood and DNA is important, but it’s not the fullness of family according to the God and found within the life of the Church. Blood might be thicker than water for some, but if you’re talking about the waters of baptism then all bets are off.
What does the Bible mean to you?
I asked this question in a Sunday School setting this past week and we launched into a pretty neat discussion. For starters, we mentioned some of the typical answers: “Scripture is God-breathed,” “The Bible is God’s holy word for God’s people,” “For many the Bible is without errors or contradiction” — you know, the typical Sunday School answers.
It was interesting to ask this in a group setting because we all tend to have our own bias ways of reading the Bible that we pretend aren’t bias at all. We gave space to admit our biases and even laugh at them a little.
Have you ever heard or uttered phrases like, “a plain reading of Scripture” or “a biblical view on marriage, parenting, relationships, sexuality, creation, science, war, etc.? The funny thing is that we can all come up with different and even conflicting answers when we approach the Bible in this kind of way. We all have our ways of twisting and turning the words of Scripture to say or support pretty much whatever we want. And more times that not, we do this in order to strengthen an argument and prove someone else wrong. But we rob the Bible of its enormous richness whenever we use it as a means to attack others or just to prove them wrong. After all, the Bible is not an encyclopedia or dictionary. All of the answers to every question ever asked cannot be found in the back of the book.
Now John Wesley saw the Bible as very authoritative and even the final word of authority. But he was honest enough to admit that we bring so much to the Bible whenever we read it. We cannot divorce ourselves from the traditions we’ve been formed in, the contexts we live in, or the biases we cling to whenever we read the Bible. So Wesley saw tradition, reason, and experience as important authorities with which to engage Scripture as we read and seek to be transformed by the text. Scripture may be the final authority but it is certainly not the only authority.
This is why we find ourselves living in a constant tension between the way(s) we read the Bible, the biases we cannot shake ourselves from, and the challenge to live in such a way that we continually seek to make God’s story our story. So let me offer a couple of ways we can faithfully delve into the Bible in (hopefully) new and exciting ways:
Here’s a question our group got back to that I think is a great question and reveals a lot about us: How do you use the Bible in your life?
How we answer that question will reveal a lot about what we believe about the Bible. We might call it sacred but if we never read it, is it actually that sacred? We might say we believe God speaks through it, but if we’re too busy finding evidence to support our own opinions when we read it, are we giving God a chance to speak? And if we only see it as a weapon to exclude or prove wrong or hurt others, then surely we aren’t being changed by the wonderful mystery of the gospel revealed most fully in Jesus Christ and found within the pages of this amazingly complex and life-giving book.
It’s a new year. We’ve come through the season of Advent. We’ve celebrated the coming of the Christ child in the manger. We’ve thrown away our old calendars and hung new empty ones showcasing a year full of promise. So how are you going to fill that new, empty calendar? Better yet, how are you different in this new year? I’m not a huge fan of making New Year’s resolutions. I confess that it’s largely due to the fact that I have a hard time keeping the resolutions I make. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m not a big fan of enduring a self-defeating process every year.
But I thought I’d give it another shot this year to see what happens. After all, that empty calendar reminds me that there’s always hope for things to be different. I’m going to make a public declaration, too, right here in this column. After all, accountability is a big part of taking on new disciplines. And since we’re all Methodists, I figure it’s in our DNA to watch over one another in mutual love and accountability.
So here it is … This year I resolve to look for the beauty of God more. And when I find it, I resolve to tell someone about it. In his book, “The Beauty of the Word,” James Howell writes, “preaching does not depend on the cleverness, intelligence, or preparation of the preacher, but solely on the beauty, in inherent persuasiveness, of the One we proclaim.”
I think our hope to live a faithful life also depends on this beauty. We can do a lot to distract ourselves from making God’s beauty central in our lives. We can convince ourselves that things like politics, stances on issues, the reduction of districts, apportionment dollars, clergy defrocking, membership numbers, wars over worship styles, building programs, committee meetings, and whether or not we agree with others are central to our lives with God and one another when they certainly are not. What is first and foremost in our lives is the beauty of God and how we see it and experience it all around us and in others. Nothing else is more important and everything else follows this.
And when we focus on God’s beauty, a wonderful thing happens – we stop being so negative. A sad fact in our world is that industries are built on keeping people angry. Cable news networks make millions knowing that we watch them, get angry, and stay that way. But they’re simply capitalizing on the fact that we like getting angry and we love it when we can do it with others. So what if we resolved to look for God’s beauty all around us and in other people more this coming year? What if we resolved to be less negative about everything? What if we griped less? What if we loved and appreciated beauty more? What if instead of arguing or resenting each other, we sought to appreciate the beauty of God in one another (and especially in those we might not always agree with)? I don’t entirely know what might happen if we tried this resolution but I hope you’ll join me in finding out. Make this your resolution for the coming year. And maybe, just maybe, we can fill our calendars and our lives with really good things.
[This column originally ran in The South Georgia Advocate on Jan. 6, 2014]
Today is the 4th Day of Christmas where we remember the children Herod slaughtered at the news of a newborn savior. And many are preaching on this story for the Sunday following Christmas Day. So here is a prayer for the Feast of Holy Innocents:
We come to this fourth day of celebration with full bellies and rich spirits. Our children have had their stockings hung by chimneys and filled to over flowing with material riches. Frankly it is hard for us to fathom a world where children can go hungry, live in the harsh coldness of the streets, and die in poverty. We confess that while this happens all around us, we are often too busy with our own self-interests to be bothered. Forgive us, we pray. Help us not only to be more personally mindful of the needs around us, but help us also to teach our own children of privilege how to care for those in need even when it means putting the needs of others ahead of their own accumulation of wealth. And may we be faithful in our service until the day comes when your kingdom is fully present among us — when guns will be beat into instruments of peace and no longer used to inflict pain on school campuses; when children will play on playgrounds that once were battlefields; and when your table of peace and abundance will be extended so that all may come and find something to eat. We pray through the one who came among us, to save us, as an innocent and vulnerable child in a world where children were also unnecessarily slaughtered; even Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.