Monday, March 28, 2011

Lent Over? Not Yet.

Lent is a call to weep for what we could have been and are not. Lent is the grace to grieve for what we should have done and did not. Lent is the opportunity to change what we ought to change but have not. Lent is not about penance. Lent is about becoming, doing and changing whatever it is that is blocking the fullness of life in us right now.  Lent is a summons to live anew. Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB

Aren't we done with Lent yet?  Can't we just move on?

Sure, we were all earnest 3 weeks ago when we gathered on a Wednesday night, had scriptures read about our mortality, and capped off with the mark of palm ashes thrust upon our foreheads.  But that seems so...yesterday.  It was still very much winter.  Spring has been flirting with us, we've gained an hour's sunlight in the evening, and the signs of life's renewal are within site...very much in reach.

Or so it seems.

Why bother doing all the spirit work any longer?  We're good, right?

We can tolerate self examination and introspection only so much.  We'll do it if we think we're supposed to.  That's what the invitation to observe a holy Lent implies.  It's church-speak...ok, then I guess I'm supposed to do it, it's the "Christian" thing to do.

But a Lent well lived emerges not from what we're supposed to do, but from what we need to do.  It is not so much what we need to give as it is what we need to take on.  Lent's invitation might open the door to launch inner work, but it's up to each of us to jump in head first and see where that takes us.

Early Christians used this time to prepare.  For what?  To take on Christ in their baptism come Easter.  It is the Lenten "summons to live anew" as suggested by Sr. Joan.

I've spent too many of my Lents thinking of the season as one in which I deprive myself of life lived to the full.  But deprivation is what I do when I don't attend to what gives life, joy and peace, and that happens far more frequently than the 40 days of Lent.

This Lent I hear the summons to live so that when Easter breaks out, I am, God willing, prepared to follow where that leads.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Practicing What I'm Preaching

"The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet."   Frederick Buechner (Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC)

My God, how many times I've used that line?  I've preached it for years. It's the framework on which so much of my sermon work is based. It's often shared in connection with Parker Palmer's "Let Your Life Speak," a book I've preached a series of sermons on a couple of times and referred to endlessly through the years.

Buechner's words ring true across time and space as both affirmation and provocation.

It's affirming when you know the moment (whenever that is and however it reveals itself) is matched with opportunity, and that opportunity elicits a Joseph Campbellesque proclamation of anthems and celebration of bliss.

It's provocation when the context of life is examined from the standpoint of "gladness" and "world's need," and neither of them have clear answers--or at least we're not willing to admit they do.

"What makes you happy?" "What makes you glad?" "What makes your heart rejoice?"

The wilderness wanderings of Lent makes the whole enterprise of finding real answers to those questions as hard a work as being in the wilderness in the first place.

But if Easter is about life springing forth from what once was dead--life resurrected and bursting from the tombs that bury our hopes, dreams, aspirations, character--even our integrity, then seeking the answers to those questions are the keys to passionate ministry, spiritual renewal, meaning itself...

I've preached those words for years. And this Lent? I'm living with them as I traverse the labyrinthine wilderness that is my life and what it will yet mean in the years ahead.

A hard thing, that....actually living into the words you proclaim. Maybe what makes it so difficult is resisting the notion that it could lead to places unexpected and outcomes unforeseen.  It might require a little faith...another thing often preached.

But if in the end gladness matches need...then it is the reflection of what God desires of us and for us, and it's worth the journey as tumultuous as it can sometimes be.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Proving Ground

That the Lenten journey starts in the wilderness is no accident.  It is as real as anything could ever be.  As it was with Jesus, how could it be anything other than that for those of us who are his companions?

I shared in my sermon last Sunday..."If you've known life in the wilderness, you understand.  If you haven't yet, I've got some news for you that you may not interpret as's not a matter of if, it's one of when."

If you think that being a Christian exempts you from the perils of life, the pains of relationships, the uncertainty of what your life means and where it's headed, to say nothing of wondering what difference the life you've had thus far has made on anything or anyone--then you're a fool.

None of us is exempt. And we shouldn't be.

As it was with Jesus, so the wilderness is for us; a proving ground.

It's a place where the examination of if what we claim to be true and what of our life's trajectory ultimately matters withstands the temptation to be anything other than what we believed our lives were really about.  The wilderness is that place where the adversary (that which is adverse to who God has made us) makes us ponder the "what ifs" of our futures from the standpoint of something that seems authentic, but is not.

My old friend, Ed Kilbourne is want to say..."a temptation is a temptation only if it is something you actually see yourself doing, and doing so gladly...otherwise, it's just a suggestion."  And suggestions are just like opinions, which are like, oh, never mind...everybody has one.

Wilderness temptations seduce us to entertain the prospect of living an alternative reality.  If our initial stint in the wilderness (Jesus was there forty days before temptations came) has us wrestling with the "whys" of our lives, the real power of temptation is fantasizing in the "what ifs" of what isn't but could be.

And the "what ifs" are not in themselves bad.

Hungry?  You've the power to remedy that.
Endangered?  You're protected.
Empowered?  Think of what could be done if you had the reigns and were in charge.

But to live in any reality but the God reality, even if the product of it could be interpreted as good, creates is inauthentic.

To make anything other than God the main thing, even if it's a good thing, is the wrong thing to do.  Bible language calls that idolatry.

In the proving ground of wilderness wrestlings, we each must determine what the "God reality" is for us to pursue.  For Jesus, it was a time to affirm if the witness of the Spirit at his baptism was enough for him to stand upon when forced into the extremes of existence.

The thing about a proving ground is that you can't know the outcome until you've endured it.  You hope for an outcome, even project it, but that's just speculation...maybe an educated guess.  The "you" you anticipate being can only be born out in the proving ground of the wilderness.

For some it's an affirmation of what's always been.
For others it's declaration of independence from what's been to new doors to walk through.

I'm ever aware that I'm now at the age of many people who are just now answering the call to ministry.  From the wilderness proving ground a new chapter, a new door, a new claim to God's reality for them is clarified and they walk through it.  It's not a rejection of what was.  Rather, it's an affirmation of what is now.  In fact, my experience with second career clergy is that the lives they lived previously informs their ministry in powerful ways.

And then there's folks like me...having never done anything other than this. I "answered the call," and started the candidacy process 30 years ago this summer.  What does my current wilderness wanderings reveal to me about what I've been, its value and import in God's Realm, and what I shall be over the next 20 years?  I haven't the answer to that...yet.  But I'm working on it.  Or more honestly stated, it's working on me.

If you're in the "proving ground" of the wilderness this Lent, I'm there with you.  My hope and prayer for us all  is that we claim the holy boldness it's going to take to respond to what we discover about God's reality for us and live it out.  Because once we've "come out the wilderness," we're more prepared than ever to be the vessels God calls us to be.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Ash Wednesday - Open Wide and Say "Aahhhh", in Jesus' Name

Sunday's palms are Wednesdays ashes as another Lent begins; 
thus we kneel before the Maker in contrition for our sins.
We have marred baptismal pledges, in rebellion gone astray; 
now returning, seek forgiveness; grant us pardon, God, this day!

We have failed to love our neighbors, their offences to forgive,
have not listened to their troubles, nor have cared just how they live.
we are jealous, proud, impatient, loving over-much our things;
may the yielding of our failings be our our Lenten offerings.

We are hasty to judge others, blind to proof of human need; 
and our lack of understanding demonstrates our inner greed;
we have wasted earths resources; want and suffering we've ignored;
come and cleanse us, then restore us; make new hearts within us Lord.  -Rae B. Whitney (1991)

Today is one of reflection, purpose and introspection.  For we who observe Ash Wednesday, we know that we'll receive the mark of our mortality upon our foreheads and be reminded that but for God's grace we are lost.

And yet, this Ash Wednesday...this beginning of the Lenten journey is one that brings us back to the places we've been before.  Lent confronts us again with the "tempers and affections" we've brought to the altar during Lents past, presumably left them there, only to find we're far more comfortable with them in our lives (as sick as they make us) as we'd trust being liberated from them.  

The imagery of the palm fronds that last year's Palm Sunday were waved as we sang, "Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who come in the name of the Lord!" being now burned into the ashes which will mark us as the words, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," are spoken, is a potent thing to consider.  For most of my time in ministry, I've taken it upon myself to burn the palms.  It's not like I enjoy it.  In fact, on a windy day like today, burning dried out palms can turn into an adventure!

So, what's this Lenten journey about?  A fool's errand?  Is there something that can be found, given up, or taken on that can differentiate this Lent from so many others before it?

Maybe.  Hopefully.

Lent was and still is for many an intentional time of preparation and examination of one's faith as they prepared to come to the baptismal font at Easter.

Examination is still a good word, and maybe that's why we're not really sure what to do with this season.  I mean, really, who likes exams?

I had  a series physical, mental and spiritual exams a little over a month ago.  First physical since I had to take one to enter Vandy, and that was 1987.  Why?  Hate them.  Why?  Because it's one thing to live in the denial of what is true about me, it's another thing to have it quantified, written down in a chart, and measured as data that can both be interpreted about the reality of my health now and the measure against how I proceed toward health or digress from it in the future.

If we observe a holy Lent, then who we are and what we discover about ourselves, including and especially the places in us that do not foster love and life can be brought into the Light, and from there we can determine what we do with them and how we can go forward.

But to bring that which does not foster love and light into the Light makes it possible for others to know what we dare not acknowledge and work so hard to hide.  That vulnerability is scary, and that's why so many don't do it.  Truthfully, it's not as if others can't see it anyway....denial again.

In the end, and at the end - the life that Lent pushes us to aspire is one made sacred...if all we do is witness Jesus' life made sacred through the ultimacy of his self-giving, and think of it only in the abstract and not the particularity of our lives, then we've missed so much of an opportunity, and this Lent is just another Church season full of empty symbols.  

Let's take the journey.  Let's take it with brutal honesty and utter humility.  If we do, I suspect Holy Week will be one of great revelation that can steer our course in the reality of a resurrected life.

"Repent, and believe in the Gospel."