Category Archives: Church Year

The Redemptive Wilderness

DesertSermon originally delivered to the Calvary Reformed Church of New Berlin, Wisconsin.
Text: Luke 4:1-13.

 

The other day, I went out for a walk, as I often like to do in the winter, on the lake behind my house. It is shallow, and it freezes over quickly, solidly, and smoothly. For someone who cannot swim, this may seem to be an odd thing to enjoy. But for some reason, I find it enjoyable, almost cathartic. As a child, one of my favorite things was when my folks took me to the Holland State Park in the winter, when the shoreline of Lake Michigan was frozen, and I could go exploring on the ice.

And as I walked out there, the snow crunching under my boots, the hairless parts of my face stinging from the sub-zero wind with no houses or trees to break it, I looked around at the frozen landscape with houses a bit in the distance, smoke and steam curling up from their chimneys, I began to wonder, as I sometimes do, why do people live here? Not necessarily me, I know why I live here, and I love living in the north. And not necessarily the European immigrants who came here, I know why they did, but before that. Why would people settle in a place that, for nearly half of the year, becomes an icy, harsh, and unforgiving landscape?

In the second year of seminary, as part of our formation, we went on an intercultural immersion trip, to experience and learn about another culture while immersed in it, and I was a part of the group that went to Oman. Oman is a wonderful nation on the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, with Saudi Arabia to the northwest, the United Arab Emirates to the north, and Yemen to the west. We spent time there with one of the RCA missionaries there. The RCA has had a continual mission presence since the late 1800’s. We were there in winter and it was still in the mid-to-upper 70’s and sunny. There are areas good for cultivating crops, but much of the landscape is a rocky, mountainous desert.

We spent a day and night in the desert, and for how hot it was during the day, it gets quite cold at night. It is a place of extremes. You can easily become dehydrated without even realizing it in a relatively short period of time. And while we were in the desert, we were visited by a group of bedouin who were selling their handmade goods. The bedouin are nomadic herders who live in the desert, and as they were there, I also began to wonder, why would anyone settle here in the first place? Why would they make their homes in this arid, hot, and unforgiving location?

I don’t think that it is a coincidence that this region of the world is the cradle of the three distinct, yet related, Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And it is not just that they are from this place, but this geography is engrained into the spirituality of these faiths as well. When you can have an understanding of the landscape it is a bit easier to enter into the biblical world in your imagination. The geography is harsh, the climate oppressive, and drinkable water relatively scarce.

Throughout the sacred scriptures, the wilderness is a place of trial, a place of temptation, a place of faith-formation. Most of all, it is a place where one learns, through experience, what it means to completely trust in and rely on God.  It is a place where it is obvious that people are not self-sufficient, and where it is clear that they rely upon God for even the most basic needs.

The ancient people had a long lesson where they learned to rely on God for guidance, food and water, and healing when vipers were sent to the camp. After his conversion, Paul spent three years in the desert of Arabia as part of his formation, and here we see that a significant part of Jesus’ formation took place during these forty days in the wilderness — the desert.

***

After Jesus was baptized, we are told that he was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. He was not just picked up and dropped and left to fend for himself like some sort of a reality TV show. No, he was led by the Spirit who remained with him. And it was to this sparse landscape that he was driven, not to a Wisconsin-style wilderness lush with vegetation and flowing water.

We are told that Jesus didn’t eat anything during those days and at the end we are told that he was famished. After all, he was fully divine, but he was also fully human, both at the same time, two natures inseparably united in one existence. And as he was human, he needed to eat, just like you and I.

And it was at this point, he was tired, hungry, his body and spirit was likely at its weakest, and at that point that we are told that the devil shows up. How often do we have an experience like this — that the tempter, the accuser, shows up when we are at our weakest, when we are tired physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and presents us with a path that is particularly appealing to us in whatever weakened state in which we find ourselves. And so the Tempter comes to Jesus and before him lie two paths. On the one hand is the path that is consistent with his mission, the path that is self-sacrificial, the path that shows power through weakness, the path that is tough but that ultimately leads to restoration and redemption. And there is a second path that the Tempter invites him to. The path of comfort, ease, and power and authority without sacrifice. It is a path that trusts in the illusion of certainty rather than the uncertainty of divine providence.

He was tempted with the ability to make bread from stone, and therefore not having to trust in divine providence. Throwing himself off of a high building to test the Divine, and the promise to give him all of the kingdoms of the world without suffering or sacrifice.

The appeal is to his base impulses. Hunger, safety, power. And in many ways this is not that much different than us. Because it is not just about these three things — it is about something more significant, something much deeper. The temptation is, “Can I depend on God?”

***

These are temptations that we all face as well. Can we depend on God? Can we rely on God? Can we trust God to lead us through the wilderness experiences in our lives? Can we trust God to lead us through the wilderness experiences in our church? Or in our country, or in our world?

As we have learned from Scripture, the wilderness can be destructive, but it can also be redemptive. The wilderness can consume, but it can also purify. The wilderness can cause us to get lost, but it can also help us to find our direction.

And I cannot help but wonder if this is the gift of Lent. It is traditional, during Lent, to give something up. The root of that tradition is to try to, in some way, relate to the sufferings and of Christ, and relate to the denials that Christ went through in the desert when he ate nothing and denied those very real temptations. But I often question the value of giving something up for Lent, because so often it has lost focus.

We give up candy, or chocolate, or ice cream, or television or red meat, or other things in which we feel that we should not indulge. It becomes yet another self-help practice. But this misses the point. Or, we can deny ourselves something to prove to ourselves that we can do it — mind over matter and all that. But this also misses the point. The point of Lenten discipline is to bring us back to a point of focus and dependence on God.

We so often imagine the devil in this story the way that we typically do — bright red skin, black hair (with a widow’s peak), horns, and a forked tongue. The problem with this image is that the devil is clear. It is easy to resist evil when it is clear and in plain sight, and in the way that we expect to see it. However, so often it is not so clear. So often the lies and temptations do not come from our culturally conditioned view of the devil, but rather in faces that look less sinister, in voices that sound less distinctly evil. Often the tempter takes the form of a face that seems more friendly, a voice that seems more genuine. Perhaps the face that we see wears a business suit and makes great promises to us, perhaps the face we see is the one that looks back in the mirror and the voice that we hear is the one that we hear inside of our minds when we are alone.

And it is so often at our weakest moments, moments when we are afraid, tired — physically, emotionally, or spiritually — or otherwise weakened. It is these wilderness experiences in our lives that we, too, face temptations. Unemployment, sickness, fear, struggles with finances, with difficulty seeing the way forward, difficulties hearing God’s voice. It is at these times that the tempter can come with a familiar voice and face and tell us that there is another way, there is a way that is easier, that seems safer, a way that we can have everything now without having to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus the Christ.

***

And now, we have insulated houses with central heating systems that can keep us warm, and we have air conditioning when the heat is dangerously high. We don’t have the same experiences in the same ways as our spiritual forebears. After a while on the lake, I came home stoked the woodstove. But still, we are not exempted from wilderness experiences. We are not exempt from the feeling of being lost in alone in a hostile atmosphere. Sometimes it is less obvious, but just as real. And just like the ancient people of God, and just like Jesus, we are not exempted from the lies and temptations from the Tempter.

And we need preparation to be able to face the tempter with a clear head, and not fall for the lies which sound often sound so appealing. And it is this what Lent offers us. It offers us the opportunity to refocus our lives, to reorient our lives, to place God and God’s desires as the center of our lives, and to grow in our ability to depend on God rather than on mortals or horses or chariots.

And so this year for Lent, don’t worry about giving up something but do something that will bring you closer to the Divine. Maybe it is a book, maybe it is regularly reading scripture, maybe it is a spiritual discipline of study, fasting, prayer, or service. Maybe it is to take a walk amidst the cold and ice and snow to understand that, regardless of our illusions, we are never self-sufficient or self-sustaining, but rely completely on the Divine hand.

So whatever your wilderness — our wilderness — we, too, are presented with a couple of paths. On the one, we can seek escape from it. And on the other we can lean into it, and discover what God may be helping us to learn.

Up from the grave

 

The Three Marys at the Tomb (Van Eyck)

Sermon originally delivered on April 5, 2015 at Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, WI. Text: Matthew 28:1-10

So often we find ways to sanitize death. Often times, death happens in a hospital or some other facility. The family may or may not be there and may or may not witness the death itself. But for the ancients, death happened at home. Everyone saw it, saw the events that would precede and accompany death.

Death was a reality for the ancients, even more than it is for us.

Death was, and is, inevitable. Death is a result of decay. The world decays. Bodies decay. Death is often not something intentional, it just happens. In the end, decay seems to always win. No one can escape the looming shadow of death which, in our experience, consumes everything. Even Jesus did not escape the reality of death.

In the gospels, Jesus died. It was not that he appeared to die, it is not that the human side of Jesus died. Jesus died. Dead. In the tomb for a couple of days. Rigor mortis had already set in as his body began decomposing.

***

A few days before, the heart monitor went flat with the long steady tone which signals the ending of a heartbeat. Breathing stopped. Had be been in a hospital, a physician would have called the time of death to be written on his death certificate. He was placed in a tomb and the tomb was sealed.

Yet, he had previously told them that he would die and rise again. Although, I can imagine that they would have believed it in such a way that we would believe it if someone told us that they will die and then rise from the dead. Sure. Nothing — nothing — escapes the grip of death.

But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. In Mark’s and Luke’s version, they brought spices, but no mention of this is made in Matthew. We are simply told that they went to see the tomb, their eyes still red and puffy from crying, the taste of the salty tears still on their lips. Why did they want to see the tomb? Perhaps as with Mark and Luke they came to anoint the body with spices. Perhaps they were coming to grieve and pay respects as we often do in cemeteries. Perhaps they came to see if this words were true, that he would rise from the dead. Making their way out of the city limits of the day they came to the place where he was buried.

But suddenly, the earth shook, they could see an angel appear, roll back the stone, and sit on it, his work being completed. His clothes were so bright, they shone like the sun, they could barely look at the angel. I can imagine that perhaps they didn’t even know what that bright light was. The Roman guards who were placed there, probably to ensure that no one would steal the body and claim he rose from the dead, they were so surprised, so shocked, so afraid that fainted. The women, however, did not have the same experience.

And as they shield their eyes with their hands, peering through a crack in their fingers, the angels speaks to them with the familiar, comforting, and confident words of God’s messengers. “Do not be afraid.”

“I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”

The angel offers an invitation and an instruction.

Come and see, the angel invites. Come and see the place where he lay. Come inside the tomb. Come inside the place from which people are not supposed to leave. Come and see the place that houses death, come and see the place where the door is to only swing one way, but has swung both ways. Come and see the place where he lay, the place which is now empty. The angel invites them to come and see, to have an experience.

But this is not it. The angel then tells them to go and tell. Go from this graveyard, go from this place of the dead. After all, they no longer have a purpose there, they no longer have a reason to be there. No longer are they to look for Jesus in the place of the dead, but amongst the land of the living.

Go and tell the disciples what has happened, go and tell them that he is not here. Go and tell them that death did not have the final say. Go and tell and decay is not the ruler of creation, go and tell them that the inevitable is not necessarily the inevitable. Go and tell them what has happened and that he is going ahead of you to Galilee, and there you will see him.

***

This is an old story, an old, old story. One which many of us have heard all our lives. Others of us have heard this story for many years. We are all familiar with it. So why do we tell it over and over again? Why do we tell it clearly every year at this time, and who do we speak about it so often?

This is about one person, but it is not about one person. This is about Jesus, but it is also about all of creation.

What is so amazing about the resurrection of Jesus is not just that one man who was dead became alive again, the amazing thing about this is that it shifts the whole created order. Perhaps the earthquake was symbolic of the shaking of the foundations of the broken order.

Death is a door which swings one way, the tomb is a place from which there is no return, decay is the force that nothing or no one can stop or thwart. But with the resurrection of Christ, these things which are constants, do not seem to necessarily be constant any longer. No longer does death or decay write the script or run the drama of life. Indeed, God writes the script and directs the drama of life. Death does not have the final word, decay is not the final movement, the tomb is not the place from which there is no escape.

Jesus’ resurrection is a foretaste of the resurrection which we shall experience at the end of all things, when Christ returns to redeem all things, when the broken order is returned to a perfection which even exceeds the original order.

Even though we experience death, death does not have the final answer. Jesus experienced death, and death did not have the final answer. In our experience, there is no return from death, but there is more to existence than our experience. Death is not ultimately the end point, but on the final day, God will raise us, too, from the grave, just as God raised Jesus from the grave.

The rules are different, that which is assumed is to be questioned. Not only was Jesus not there, but he was going on ahead of the disciples to Galilee, and there he would meet them.

***

The resurrection is the sign that creation has begun its process of restoration and redemption. The resurrection of Christ ushered in the kingdom of God which starts small and slowly begins to encompass everything. It is a transformation which begun at this moment and will continue until the final consummation when all of creation will be redeemed, and God reaches out God’s hand and raises up the faithful to the glorious rest after a life well-lived.

But this hope is not just something for after death, it is something which impacts our lives here and now.

The Marys were not just told to come and see, they were not just told to think and believe, they were told to come and see and then go and tell. Go and tell the disciples what has happened, and that I will be going ahead of them into Galilee.

Jesus was going ahead of them, and he will meet them there.

And we find ourselves in this position too. Christ has been raised, but this is not just something that we just think about and use to cheer ourselves.  Truly this is good news, we must remember that. Christ has conquered the powers — Christ has conquered death. Christ has overcome decay.

And because Christ has been raised we can continue to heed Christ’s call to follow, while Christ goes ahead of us. Christ calls us to follow along the way, loving God and loving others. Showing forth grace and mercy. Living into the redemption which God is effecting.

Come and see, go and tell. I’m going ahead of you.

***

We have journeyed through the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, the death of Good Friday, the silent emptiness of Holy Saturday, and now life on Easter Sunday.

Far from simply just focusing after-death, today is the reason that we can wave our fists in defiant protest in front of death and proclaim with St. Paul, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55)

Death has been swallowed up in victory. Death has been swallowed up in victory. We, then, are called to live like it, and Christ goes ahead of us.

 

The Fourth Magus

20140108-104139.jpgI think that next Epiphany, I am going to add a fourth magus to my nativity.

Why do we sing “We Three Kings…” and place three figures when we are never told that there were actually three? Why not two, or twenty?

Far from trying to be difficult, though, my desire to add a fourth magus has everything to do with my own experience of the story and the way that I can enter into the story.

***

Different people focus at different points of the story. Me? I am drawn to the very end, the post-script, you could say. There is, at the very end, a transition sentence. This sentence serves as a bridge between the visit of the magi and the flight to Egypt. But this sentence is far more than simply a transition sentence, it could be, I think, the actual high point of the story.

“…they left for their own country by another road” (Mt. 2:12, NRSV).

The Greek word used here for “road” (NIV uses “route”) can refer to a literal road or highway. It can also refer more figuratively to a journey, and it can also be used to refer to a way of life ( for example, “I’ve been down that road before…).

I wonder what it was like for the magi, as they were packing up to leave.

Read the rest at That Reformed Blog

Hump Day Hymns – Lent edition: The Glory of These Forty Days

Hymnal

The glory of these forty days
We celebrate with songs of praise;
For Christ, by whom all things were made, 
Himself has fasted and has prayed.

Alone and fasting, Moses saw
The loving God who gave the law;
And to Elijah, fasting, came 
The steeds and chariots of flame.

So Daniel trained his mystic sight,
Delivered from the lion’s might;
And John, the Bridegroom’s friend, became
The heralds of Messiah’s name.

Then grant that we like him be true,
Consumed in fast and prayer with You;
Our spirits strengthen with Your grace,
And give us joy to see your face.
-Gregory the Great (540-604), Trans. Maurice F. Bell (1862-1947)

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”

The gritty ash grinds into my forehead as one of the elders dips her thumb into the dish full of ash which is as dark as my sin, and marks a cross into my forehead.

As she marks the cross, she looks me in the eye while reciting those haunting words reminding me of my mortality, of my brokenness, of my sin, of who I am and who God is.

Today, Lent begins. Lent is a season that is filled with prayer, repentance, and change. It is a season when it is common to give something up, or to take something on. We do this in order that we can identify with the sufferings of Christ, and in doing so, we can enter into a deeper and closer relationship with the divine. This causes Lent to, even further, be a somber season filled with suffering, and self-denial. While I appreciate Lent and other melancholy seasons, this hymn invites me — invites us — to nuance the way in which we view and experience Lent.

I have never before heard the forty days of Lent used in the same sentence as “glory” and describing the observation of Lent as a “celebration.”

What I have often forgotten in my own observance of Lent, is that the purpose of this season is to bring us into deeper relationship with the divine, and that God brings joy — a joy which is deeper and richer than simply happiness.

The wonderful thing about this particular hymn, is that it links fasting and praying with joy, glory, and celebration. Suffering is not an end, it is only beneficial insofar as it brings us into a closer relationship with God and helps us to experience the joy and glory of God with fresh eyes of the heart.

***

I have been trying to figure out how I am going to observe Lent this year. I have found that giving up meat, giving up dairy, or something of the like does not bring me to a place where I can experience the joy and glory of God with new eyes and a renewed spirit. As often happens, my life goes on as normal only without meat, without dairy, or whatever the case may be.

Truthfully, I don’t need to give up meat or dairy in order to experience suffering. Suffering is all around me, all around us. My ministry is exceptionally taxing, I continue to struggle with discerning God’s calling on my life. There are shootings all around me on a regular basis, some of which reach closely to members of my congregation. I have had loved ones die, many unexpectedly and early. Daily, I see and interact with people who sleep under bridges and hidden away in parks and who try desperately to live through the frozen night to see another day. Compared to all of this, giving up meat for forty days does not seem to be that much of an experience of suffering.

What I need is not something to make me feel melancholy, I live that way throughout all of the other seasons, what I need is not something to make me experience suffering, that is something which is lived and experienced throughout all of the other seasons. What I need is this:

Our spirits strengthen with Your grace,
And give us joy to see Your face.

This year, for Lent, I will not be giving anything up. Fasting is good, it is something which, rightly practiced, can refocus our lives and renew our spirits. I will continue in my typical practice of fasting, but I will not fast from anything new. I am going to celebrate Lent by seeking the joys and glory of God even amidst the brokenness and of the world, and allow that experience of glory to purify my heart, my soul, and my life.. After all, this is what Lent is about: turning us back toward God in preparation for the new life of the resurrection.

This year, then, as the grass greens, the bare and dead-looking trees bud new life, and as the flowers send up shoots, may my heart also spring fresh shoots of new life and a new commitment to following the triune God.

Christmas in a train station

Untitled

By darapo on Flickr (cc)

One of the crosses that those in pastoral ministry bear, is that we are never able to be with family for the holidays. Holidays are spent with church, with parishioners, with the community of faith. We can certainly celebrate holidays with family, but it is always “Christmas, observed.” For me, Christmas Day is a day of travel, formerly with car, this year with train. Rather than spending Christmas sitting before a roaring fire listening to Christmas music, I was spending it luggage in hand, amidst other Christmas Day travelers, en route to the mysterious land of upstate New York.

One thing I know for sure, traveling on Christmas is not like in movies. No cheery people trying to help one another, no Christmas music which celebrates the season, no Santa hats or bags filled with gifts. Instead there are a collection of people, irritated because they have to travel on Christmas Day, and the sound of the television in the train station which has Piers Morgan interviewing seemingly every person on the planet for three minutes each.

Christmas in a train station (or an airport for that matter) is nothing like it is in the movies, however, that makes sense, as life is not like it is in the movies.

When Jesus was born (whenever that was, probably not December 25), there were no Christmas carols, no Christmas greens or wreaths, no lighted stars that are perched atop evergreen trees, nothing that we associate with Christmas. I wonder if this, perhaps, is a good lesson for Christmas.

I am pretty confident that the Christmas carols lie.

“The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes; but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.”

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.”

“Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright.”

Hardly.

I imagine that the birth of Jesus was accompanied by worry, concern, all of the smells that are associated with a barn and barnyard animals. There was crying, screaming, pain, blood, and other bodily fluids.

There were people of low socioeconomic status (shepherds) who share in this earthly, yet supernatural, moment.

I wonder if Jesus’ birth was more like spending Christmas night in a train station rather than the beautifully decorated, lighted, and peaceful service of lessons and carols which is traditional for Christmas.

Perhaps the beauty of my Christmas in a train station is that I had the opportunity to try to experience joy in the midst of real life, in the midst of frustration, confusion, and need. In the midst of life as it is, not as it will be.  A lessons and carols service that gives a glimpse of heaven, that is how things will be. Christmas in a train station is how things are. This is where we live, when we try to experience joy in the midst of how things are, knowing that they will be much better.

The light shines

20121225-065945.jpg

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5, NRSV).

Merry Christmas, and I hope that you have a blessed and holy celebration of the Word-made-flesh.

On not being afraid

This time of year, Advent transitioning into Christmastide, is a time in which we frequently hear the words, “Do not be afraid.”

Depending on what Gospel you are reading, an angel shows up to Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph, and begins with the same words, “Do not be afraid.”

Do not be afraid. Some conclude that this is the greeting, many times, because angels appear frightful. Others, because they would likely be surprised when someone is standing in their bedroom or wherever they may be.

I wonder, however, if there is something more broadly applicable about this opening line.

Do not be afraid. Perhaps this comes because whatever the angel is going to say is going to be out of the ordinary: a virgin is going to become pregnant, a woman beyond child-bearing years is going to bear a child, a dead person has come back to life.

Perhaps this comes as a continual reminder of what God desires for us: to have confidence. After all, we have much to fear.

Every day when I wake up and turn on the news I hear of at least a couple shootings that have happened overnight in my city, a streetside memorial reminds me that even walking two blocks can be fatal. The unemployment rate reminds all of us that our jobs are not stable, and that any of us are just a few paychecks away from homelessness. We have been reminded that places of worship and schools are not safe, as people with firearms can wreak havoc on adults and children. These are not new developments, however, as the ancient world was no safer of a place.

It is in the context of much to fear that angels show up and tell those they visit, “do not be afraid.” It is in this context that we are reminded, as well, do not be afraid.

As I have grown, my fear and worry has increased exponentially. As a child I had relative certainty that I would have a roof over my head, that I would have clothing and food. I had relative certainty that I was safe at school and that my base needs would be met. As those needs are shifted to one’s own responsibility, fear increases. I have to be concerned with putting food on my table, I have to be concerned with paying the rent to ensure that we have a home, I have to be concerned with the provision of clothing, I have to be concerned with my safety at church, or while walking down the street.

Or do I?

While we are never called to be lazy (work was created by God) or dumb (everyone knows that walking through dark alleys at 2:00am is a terrible idea), perhaps the command to not be afraid is indicative of how God desires for us to live.

When I am continually afraid, I shut myself off. When I am afraid of losing those things that I need to survive, I stop giving financial and material things to the work of ministry, and to provide for those who lack. When I am afraid of rejection, I don’t speak out or stand up. When I am afraid of losing my job, employment seems to transform into a prison. When we live in fear, we listen more to our survival instinct and less to God.

Not being afraid is an incredible act of trust. The ability to trust, ultimately to trust in the fact that God is in control and takes care of us, is something which is immensely difficult to do when we face all of these fears.

A question that I need to ask myself, is this: do I actually trust? Do I trust that God has some sort of a plan, that God is in control of things, that God cares for us and provides for us? Do I trust that God is truly with us? Do I trust that God is bigger than the bogey man, and that God will not lead me astray?

“To trust is to admit that you are not God, that you cannot control the outcome of situations, that you will show up, listen hard to your calling, do the work, and open your hands” (Keri Wyatt Kent, Deeply Loved, Ch. 28, para. 18).

“Do not be afraid” is one of the concepts I have been reflecting on this Advent. I am a person of great anxiety and of great fear, and this fear speaks loudly into my life. What does it mean to not be afraid?

What does it mean for you, dear reader, to not be afraid?

***************************************************************************
This post is in the Deeply Loved Advent Blog Hop Series hosted by Angie Mabry-Nauta

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“Being” as witness to the resurrection

I’ve been meditating and thinking about John’s account of the resurrection, which is the appointed Gospel text for Easter Sunday (John 20:1-18).  I find John’s account fascinating, particularly because at first, rather than angels proclaiming that Jesus is not there but is risen, we have an empty tomb, with all of the thoughts, fears, and uncertainties that goes along with that.  Peter and John show up, and we get a hint that perhaps John is on to something, but the disciples soon leave to go home.

But there is something particular about Mary.  Mary stayed around for a bit, mourning the absence of Jesus’ body.  Angels do show up, but they don’t explain what was going on, they simply ask her why she’s weeping.  She turns around, and sees a fellow who simply asks her why she is weeping, and for whom she is looking.  It is only when Jesus calls Mary by name that she recognizes him.  This of course brings to mind, John 10:14, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me” (NRSV).

Mary was given a gift that the other disciples did not yet receive: an experience with seeing the resurrected Jesus.  It was after she had this experience with Jesus that he sent her to others to tell them what she had seen. I find it significant that Mary tarried there for a bit, she spent some more time in the moment and this allowed her to be the first person to lay eyes on Jesus after his resurrection.  It was only after this period of being, after this experience with Jesus that she was sent out to do something, to tell others what she had experienced.  There is an incredible importance of being that we lose out on when we place such an importance on doing.

I have been asking myself, had I been there, would I have stuck around?  Would I have the ability to stay at the empty tomb wondering if someone took Jesus’ body to defile it, or if grave robbers have taken it?  Would I have been able to stare at the empty tomb and remain in the moment for a bit longer?  My answer would be, probably not.  However, in not sticking around, not spending time in the moment, I would likely miss the first glimpse of the risen Christ.  This makes me wonder how many other times I miss Christ’s presence in the world because I don’t stick around long enough to experience it.

“Being” always leads to “doing”, however, one cannot fully “do” without first “being”.  This is just as difficult for a pastor than for everyone else, that we must first spend time “being”.  We need to simply be with God, experience the moment, mourn when we need to mourn, and celebrate when we need to celebrate.  Perhaps in doing so, we have have an intimate experience that brings immense hope and joy, and witness the very thing that we thought impossible.

“Remember, you are dust…”

I’ve always enjoyed Ash Wednesday services.  I enjoy them not because they make me happy, but because they are powerful.  The reminder that we are dust, and to dust we will return is an important reminder.  The feeling of the grit of the ash on my forehead helps me to remember the grit of my sin.  I enjoy Ash Wednesday services because they help me to refocus my life on God, and it helps me to re-center my existance on God, and God’s transforming work.

I have participated in the imposition of the ashes many times before.  Hearing the words “Remember, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” is always a very sobering experience.  Saying the words wrenches my heart.  But Ash Wednesday this year, the first Ash Wednesday as the pastor of my church, I had an experience that almost moved me to tears: I looked a three year old girl in the eyes and said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”  The fact of the matter is that she is dust, and she will return to dust, just as I am and I will also. For some reason, it is much more powerful when I say it to a child.

I think about how many years they have ahead of them, how many great things they may do.  It is sobering to think about mortality before their life really even began.  I suppose, though, that that is the point of Ash Wednesday. That it is not about us — it is about God.  We can not do anything lasting.  I suppose that is a bit of what Qoheleth was thinking in the composition of Ecclesiastes.  The point is that God does the lasting work, and in understanding our mortality, we allow ourselves to be changed by God.

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, and Lent is a time of repentence, prayer, transformation, and renewal. In order for this transformation and renewal to happen, we have to recenter ourselves on the order of the universe.  God is God, I am dust — and in response I will open myself to God’s transformational work so that I can face Easter a renewed person.

Why I’m Avoiding Christmas Music During Advent

This is the time of year when people begin talking about getting into the “Christmas Spirit”.  I must confess, I’m not in the Christmas spirit, but I think that it is okay, because now is not the time to be in the Christmas spirit, this is the time to be in the Advent spirit.

In my experience, Advent is a difficult season for many of us to celebrate (as is Lent, but that is a thought for another time).  As can be seen in many areas of life, we want things faster and more efficient.  We want definitions to words by just clicking on them rather than looking them up in a dictionary.  We want synonyms for words by clicking on them rather than using an actual thesaurus.  We want to write papers based on sources solely in the internet rather than going to a library to research.  If we want music, we simply turn it on.  If we want to follow a thought, we do it immediately.  There is no need to wait for anything anymore with smartphones, broadband internet access, and hand-held mp3 players, and various other gadgets that we busy our lives with.  I must confess, that I also fall into this, and I find waiting difficult as well.

Advent is not always easy to celebrate because it is a season of waiting.  Who wants to wait during Advent when we can jump right to Christmas now?  There are radio stations playing Christmas songs 24/7 right now.  I have stacks of Christmas music that I can listen to.  I can read any of the birth narratives in the Bible whenever I want.  While none of these things are bad, there is something to say for a fuller experience of Advent.

While I can jump right to Christmas, the one thing that I cannot do is jump to the Parousia.  Celebrating Advent is not an exercise in self-denial, celebrating Advent is an exercise in life!  The song for Advent is “O come O come Emmanuel” knowing that there will be “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” It is tempting to jump right to the latter, who wouldn’t?  While in the church year we celebrate the birth of Christ, we live our lives looking forward to the return of Christ.  We live, in a very real way, singing, “O come, O come Emmanuel…”  We know that Christ will return, and bring redemption and restoration with him.

Advent is not simply the time before Christmas.  Advent is not a space holder on the liturgical calendar.  Advent describes our lives in a very real way as we long and yearn, and prepare for the coming of God.  The sesason of Advent reminds me of my need to live an Advent life, not longing for rapture or with some escapist purpose, but an Advent life that includes expectation, and preparation, and trying to take my part in the whole church’s mission to be a foretaste of the Kingdom of God.

That’s why I’m celebrating Advent, and that is why I’m avoiding Christmas music during Advent.  I want to sing, live, think, and deeply feel the essence of “O come, O come, Emmanuel.”