Tag Archives: Mortality

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.

Leaning into the Wilderness

The Temptation of Christ, Simon Bening

A Sermon originally delivered to Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, WI

Text: Matthew 4:1-17

Immediately after Jesus’ baptism, the claim from the heavens that Jesus is God’s son, Jesus is led to the wilderness to be tempted.

While we may see these as different events, they are all tied together in one long narrative by the gospel writer to show Jesus’ identity as the Son of God.

The wilderness has a significant role in the story of scripture.

One day Moses was caring for the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, and he led them through the wilderness, to the far side. It is there that he sees, out of the corner of his eye, a bush that was on fire but did not appear to be consumed, and Moses thought to himself, I need to step aside, take a detour from where I am headed, and see this amazing sight. And it is here that God spoke to Moses and changed the history of the people of God.

As the people of God made their way to safety from oppression and slavery, they ended up spending 40 years in the wilderness as they learned what it meant to be the people of God. The desert was a time of challenge and temptation, but also grace and revelation. It was through this time that the people of God learned what it meant to be the people of God, not only for them, but also for future generations as they passed on these stories.

After the showdown with the priests of Ba’al at the two altars, Elijah gets word that he is going to die, and he goes into the wilderness and sits down beneath a solitary tree and asks to die. For forty days and nights he passes through the wilderness until he reaches mount Horeb, or Sinai, and there he meets God and he is given a new mission from God.

And it is in the wilderness that Jesus is led immediately following this statement by God. Until now, Jesus doesn’t really do much, he doesn’t gather disciples, he doesn’t teach, he doesn’t do miracles. These forty days in the wilderness is Jesus’ preparation as he, perhaps, learns as well. After all, Jesus was fully God, but also fully human.

Just as Jesus’ baptism is an extension of the epiphany to the Magi, his time in the wilderness is an extension of his baptism, the preparation for his ministry.

Jesus fasted for forty days, was tempted by the tempter and resisted and the angels came and waited on him. Just when we think things will let up a bit he leaves the desert and goes home to Nazareth to learn that John the Baptizer has been arrested. He leaves home and settles northeast by the Sea of Galilee in a village called Capernaum.

***

The temptation story also shows us what kind of redeemer, what type of king, what type of leader he will be. Even at his weakest moment, he will not embrace power, but will turn it down. He will let nothing stand between him and his mission. It is a mission which began in turmoil and will end in death, and ultimately a resurrection. Jesus does not exist for his own benefit, but for the benefit of others. He will not turn stones into bread for him to eat, but later in the story he will multiply bread for the people to eat. He will not take power over everything for himself, but he will offer the Kingdom of Heaven to those who follow him in righteousness.

The Gospel writer notes early on that he will be called Emmanuel, that is, God with us (Mt 1:23), and this shows how Jesus is with us, not only in terms of space, but also in terms of identification. Jesus not only lived among us, but could identify with us. Neither Jesus’ heritage, nor his identity, nor his calling would keep him from the experience of  humanity, from the experience of life, the good and the bad, the highs and the lows, the joys and the pains.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, but without sin. (Heb. 4:15).

This is a transformative experience for Jesus, and one which will stay with him throughout his ministry. Indeed, throughout his ministry, Jesus will face temptations of various sorts, including the temptation to cut and run when his arrest and death was imminent. But this time of preparation in the desert, this will help him to understand his mission and to what he is called.

***

As God’s people we too are led into wilderness experiences. Not necessarily a physical wilderness, but a spiritual wilderness. We may not be abstaining from food, our wilderness experiences often make us feel a hunger, a deep hunger, as though we are not being nourished as we ought. It is a time of loneliness, isolation, fear, longing, hunger.

The wilderness experience of the ancient people of God was not a result of rejection by God, but rather, because they were God’s people. Jesus’ wilderness experience is not a result of rejection by God, but rather an extension of being claimed by God.

So often we may think that our wilderness experiences may be a result of rejection by or a turning away by God but perhaps this may not always be the case. Perhaps it is a part of being God’s people, perhaps it is a time to help us learn what it means to be God’s people, and perhaps these wilderness experiences help us understand what it means to be claimed by God.

But the best part about this is that we do not enter into these wilderness experiences alone, Jesus joins us in these wilderness experiences. Jesus joins us in the solitude, in the loneliness, in the hunger, in the thirst. Jesus joins us in the struggle and striving with God. Before Jesus leaves the people after his resurrection he promises to them, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). and this is a promise that holds true today, a promise that holds true for you and for me. That even in these barren and lonely and hard times, we do not trod them alone, but we trod them with Jesus, who went through these experiences himself while on earth.

Therefore, sisters and brothers, the wilderness is a part of life with God, a part of struggling and striving with God. In the wilderness lies growth, learning, an epiphany even, if we live into the wilderness experiences into which we may be led. But we do not enter into the wilderness alone. Many times we have other members of the body of Christ who can journey with us if we allow it.  But even more, we have Jesus who has walked in our shoes, who has lived a life like ours, who has experienced every piece of human life and can sympathize with us.

 

Reaching Into the Dark

Sermon from this past Sunday. The text was Luke 7:11-17

This is a short story, only six verses to be accurate, but it is a wonderfully beautiful story. This story is another example of how, sometimes, silence can be more powerful and more significant than words. After all, there are only a couple of spoken phrases in this whole story. The rest is narration and silence.

So let’s look at the scene for a couple moments. Jesus was coming from Capernaum where he just finished healing a centurion’s servant. There, Jesus never even saw the centurion or his servant. What Jesus did see was the love of the community and the faith of a foreigner — neither of which would be expected for a Roman centurion. So Jesus was traveling again — Remember, Jesus traveled literally all the time. Perhaps Jesus was going to this town on purpose, perhaps he was passing through but decided to stop there.

Before Jesus even gets to the gates of the town he sees something out of the ordinary. There is a crowd coming out of the city. Jesus is trying to come in, and seemingly everyone is trying to get out. He hears the flautists and he hears weeping and wailing. As he looks closer he sees that in front of the group is a bier, which is not exactly a casket but does hold the body of a deceased person. At this point Jesus and his disciples, who were with him, realize that this is a funeral procession.

It was not only the disciples that were with him, but a crowd also came with them, and they were really wanting to know what is going on. One of the disciples approaches one of the bystanders and asks what is going on, and after finding out, he goes up to Jesus and tells him that the funeral is for a young man who was the son of that widow, and the disciple points out to Jesus his mother.

So now we have the crowd from the funeral procession and we have the crowd that Jesus brought with him, and there, in the midst of this now massive group of people is this one woman who has first lost her husband, and now her only son. Widows were particularly vulnerable because at the time, women depended on men for shelter, food, and pretty much everything else needed for life. So this woman lost her husband, and it would have been her son that was taking care of her, and now he died. All of this on top of the fact that a parent lost her child.

So there are a mashup of people with a crowd coming out and a crowd going in, and Jesus looked and he saw the widow, and he felt compassion for her.

It is this moment, I think, that really speaks volumes here. We see not only Jesus’ actions, we also have the opportunity to glimpse into what Jesus was feeling. His heart broke.

Jesus then walks up to the widow and says, “Do not weep,” which would be rather insensitive and offensive if it was not for what he does after that. Jesus then touches the bier, which is enough to make him unclean, and the pallbearers get the hint, so they stop for a moment.

Jesus looks at the pale, cold, lifeless corpse. As he looked at the corpse, he pointed his finger at it and said, “young man, I tell you, get up!” And suddenly with that, they boy sat up, and started talking. Why did he start talking? So that everyone there knew and we can know that he was actually alive. This was no muscle spasm that made it look like he sat up, he started talking.

This story is beautiful, if not in its words, in its silences.

This story is also somewhat unique. It is one of only three stories recorded in the gospels where Jesus actually brought someone back to life. Many people he healed, but only three he brought back to life. It is also somewhat unique because no one asked him to heal the boy. No one asked him to do anything. We read that Jesus saw the widow and he had compassion.

It reminds me of the raising of Lazarus. No one asked him to bring Lazarus back to life, but his heart broke.

Similarly, here we simply have Jesus who sees a mourning and grieving mother, but not only that it is a woman who has lost her only remaining support, and he has compassion, his heart breaks, he feels sympathy for this widow. It is this that drives him to action.

When I was young, I would sometimes see Jesus as somewhat aloof. He taught a lot, always knowing what others didn’t know, always understanding what others didn’t understand, always seeing things in a way that no one else saw. People would ask him to heal this person or that and he would, and then teach them something. Now, none of this is particularly incorrect, but it is incomplete. Our understanding of Jesus is incomplete if we forget about this story of Jesus raising this widow’s son. No doubt the redemption of the whole creation was in view but this story, in part, teaches us that Jesus was not just interested in the redemption of creation but also about the care of particular lives in particular situations.

It is important that we pay attention to what Jesus does here. First, he sees her, then he has compassion for her, then he reaches out.

Amidst all of the people in the crowd, all of the people who were mourning — no doubt he had friends and neighbors — amidst all of these people he saw the widow. It is important to understand that this was not just a “look at” or a “notice” but he saw, he perceived, the tried to understand. So he sees, truly sees, this widow who has just lost her only son and he has compassion.

The word here refers not to something of the intellect, but to a gut-wrench. Jesus didn’t just have pity on her, he deeply felt compassion and sympathy in his gut. Jesus allowed himself to be moved by what he saw. He knew that what he saw was not right, he knew what was happening was not part of God’s original order and design, he knew that parents were not supposed to bury their children, and he knew that this woman’s livelihood was in the balance.

So Jesus doesn’t just say, “oh that is just too bad.” No, this compassion drives Jesus to do something, so without being asked he first comforts the mother, and then reaches down to death, reaches into the unclean, into the impure, into the dark to bring life out of it.

Jesus reached down into that seemingly bottomless abyss out of which no one comes, and brought back a life, which no one would have ever thought possible.  I find it interesting that Jesus could have just spoken the young man back to life without getting his hands dirty, but he didn’t, he touched the stretcher on which the dead body was carried. In doing so, Jesus, in a way, reached down into the dark.

Now, I would guess that none of us have seen a dead person come back to life in quite this way. I have talked with medical professionals who have witnessed or been involved in resuscitations  but this is something different, this is a dead person who comes back to life, sits up, and starts talking.

So, this is all well and right, but how can we relate to this story?  I find that many Christians that I spend time with typically follow one of these two methods of dealing with these miracle stories. Either, one, we expect that miracles like this don’t happen anymore, and they only happened to teach something about Jesus, and since they are accomplished, there is no need for them any longer. The second method is to expect miracles like this, and then when they don’t happen, we assume that something went awry…there was lack of faith, insincere prayer, a besetting sin.

Many of us tend to fall into one of these broad camps, and neither of these are particularly better or worse than the other. We do this because we have a difficult time reconciling what we read in scripture and what we witness in our lives. I’ve seen parents bury their children. I’ve seen a mother bury her 9 year old son — and I was 8 and he was my best friend. I’ve been with a mother and father bury their newborn daughter who never made it home from the hospital. All of these were great people who did not deserve what happened, and if being faithful was the prerequisite for a miracle all of these people would still be living and breathing.

These miracle stories are not just about the individual person who is on the receiving end of the miracle. These miracle stories are to give a foretaste of the Kingdom of God when things are set right. These stories are to give a glimpse into our hope that God will restore the world into what it ought to be, a world in which blind will see, lame will walk, the sick are healthy, and parents do not bury children. They are to give the people in first century Palestine, and us today, a taste of who Jesus is, and what he is all about. They are to give a glimpse into who God is and what God is all about — after all, Jesus is God-with-us.

Perhaps we don’t see someone raised from the dead like this, but can we imagine Jesus reaching into the dark for us? I think that we’ve all seen it in one way or another. Someone with a terminal disease who has long outlived the projections of even the best doctors. The mother who has serious complications in childbirth, yet the child somehow survives. The four-year old boy who gets stuck by errant bullets and yet survives just fine.

But we also know about the sixteen year old girl who gets struck by a drunk driver yet dies even before they can get her to the hospital.

We live in a world full of contradictions. We live in a world when some people seem to get miracles and others do not. We live in a world where there seem to be far more people in need of miracles than there are miracles to go around. But one of the practices that we must continue to hone throughout our faith journey is our imagination. Our capacity to imagine where God might be working, and what God might be doing even if we cannot see it plainly. Our ability to imagine that miracles come in forms which are less glitzy, perhaps even less dramatic. Maybe, then, the challenge we face is not a world with too few miracles, but rather too few of the ones that we want, or the ones that we recognize as miraculous.

When we focus on only one view of what is possible, only one way to think of miracles, only one way that God works, we miss the fact that God works around us, all the time.

Elijah stood in a cave while God promised to pass by. First there was a great wind, and God has appeared as a great wind before, but scripture tells us that wasn’t God. There was an earthquake, and God has appeared in an earthquake before, but scripture tells us that wasn’t God either. And then there was a fire, and God loves to use fire, but scripture tells us that still wasn’t God. Rather, God appeared in the sound of sheer silence. Had Elijah just assumed that God would be show up in the same majestic ways that God has before, Elijah would have missed that encounter with God.

If we only accept that God shows up in this way or that, we will miss the ways that Jesus sees us, has compassion for us, and reaches into the dark chaos of our lives. Just as Jesus touched that stretcher of that young man, Jesus reaches into the dark of our lives, and can many times, work a miracle, even small, even if we can’t see it, even if we can’t recognize it for quite some time.

It is not our job to make miracles happen, and it is not our job to determine how God shows up. It is our job to try not to fear, to believe, and to pray. I hope that we will never stop praying for miracles, but we have to understand that when we pray, we are engaging God in relationship rather than pushing buttons on a vending machine. When we pray, we share in God’s purposes, regardless of whether things happen the way that we want, when we want.

So I want you to imagine, just for a few moments, where God might be present in your life, how God might be present in your life. Where might you see Jesus reaching into the dark? We don’t have to pray for God to show up, God’s already here. Our prayer is for God to make Godself evident, and for God to show Godself so that we can understand and experience God’s presence, God’s action, God’s long reach out to us even if we are, like the young man in this story, dead to touch.

Amen.

“‘…for I am the LORD who heals you.'”

I have a parishioner, I will call him Larry.  Larry has been battling cancer for some time, and has seemed to be losing the battle.  It has metastasized in different places, and just a few short weeks ago, he did not expect to be here by Christmas. The pain was unbearable even with pain medicine, and he was continually worrying about those family members that he would leave behind.

Having had loved ones battle with, and some die from, cancer, I understand how this goes. I understand that when cancer spreads throughout one’s body, the handwriting is on the wall. Most people know this as well.

Just a couple of days ago, I spoke with Larry, and ask him how he was doing. He said that he was doing quite well, that the pain was still there but more manageable, and that a couple of the spots elsewhere in his body had disappeared!  Whereas Larry thought he would be gone by before Christmas, now it seems that Larry will be here past Christmas.  Most importantly, however, Larry was able to regain his hope for the future, he was able to enjoy life and savor it, he was able to look at his future without an expiration date stamped on his foot.

To be sure, Larry still had cancer that was slowly destroying his body. However, the outlook, at least for now, looked slightly better? Was it the radiation treatments?  That most certainly would have had an impact. Did God have involvement? Most definitely.  However, what the radiation treatments could not have done was to increase Larry’s outlook. They could not have given Larry a sense of peace, or hope for the future.

In my experience, divine healing is something which is often relegated to Benny Hinn or Todd Bentley. Consequently, I, and I suspect I am not alone, will speak of God as “the Great Physician”, and will pray for healing, but will often expect little in terms of something miraculous.

I am often guilty of thinking of healing in terms of something physical. In the Bible we often read of people who were blind, but were able to see; those who were lame, were able to walk. But we also have the disturbed Gerasene man. While the above named “healers” offer great theatrics, I do not think that this is where true healing is to be found, and I do not thing that for healing to happen there has to be a sudden miraculous moment where all cancer is gone, an incurable disease has suddenly disappeared, where the blind can see, or the lame can walk. Is it possible? Sure it is. Is this the only way? Certainly not.

Sometimes true healing comes in little bits. It comes in a spot of cancer which was there but has disappeared even though it still exists other places. It comes in pain which was unbearable but which is now manageable. It comes in a hope that did not exist but now does.

I have been reminded that God does heal, that God remains the Great Physician, and remains active. The rub, however, that it often comes in a form that we are not expecting, and consequently do not see. Sometimes the miraculous actually comes clothed in something mundane and ordinary.

Striving With God

Drought between Spain and Portugal

Via the Italian voice on Flickr

It has been some time since we have received any amount of actual rainfall, and when added to the unseasonably hot temperatures, this creates a situation in which plants struggle to survive and farmers lose significant portions of their crops.  The health department has been recommending that people stay inside air conditioning and not exert oneself too much while outside.  Our whole area has been under an Excessive Heat Warning for much of the week.

Things have largely been inconvenient for my wife and I.  We have a window air conditioner in our flat which keeps our living space cool and we have fans to circulate the cool air.  I can get on an air conditioned bus to travel around the city; I can turn on the faucet and obtain water with which to drink, bathe, and cook.

Despite the fact that we are on the verge of an official drought, I do not have to feel the immediate effects of the extreme dryness, I have conveniences which can insulate me from them a bit.  However, it remains clear that the ground is dry, that plants are dying, and crops are not able to survive the heat and lack of rainfall.  When I pay attention, I must admit that despite our abilities and accomplishments we remain wholly dependent upon God’s provision.

This is a lesson that I see continually in scripture: the Israelites wander through the desert and are reliant upon God for food and water; Jesus spends forty days in the desert and is reliant on God for care and eventually for nourishment; Elijah fled to the desert and was fed by angels.  Perhaps there is a lesson in the times that rain does not come, not so much a punishment but something from which we can learn.  As humans, we are limited.  We can fly through the air, send rockets into space, send submarines deep into the ocean.  We can cool air in buildings, and pump water straight to one’s home even when there has not been any precipitation.

The heat and dryness is something that we cannot change.  We can do things to cope with the heat, we can try to irrigate and water plants the best that we are able, but there are effects that we simply cannot change or undo.  Despite all of our accomplishments, despite all of the things that we can do, humans are still not sovereign over our world and humans are not ultimately in control.  This hot and dry season has been a lesson for me in the importance and centrality of the providence of God.

As much as I may want to, I cannot bring rain.  So I continue to pray that God will bring rain and pray that God will provide relief, I continue to pray that God will open up the heavens which are shut up and heal and restore the land.  I wonder, at times, if this is an example of what was meant when the people of God were named Israel: those who strive with God.  I do not understand why farmers have to lose their crops, I do not understand why people have to get sick and some even die from the current weather conditions.   It is in this hot and dry season that I feel particular kinship with our ancestors in the faith who lived and strove with God in the midst of the desert praying for the same relief that I, and many of us, now pray for.  Despite all of the things that change in the world, there remain constants: humans are not in control, and we continue to strive with God.

On Being Dried Up

stairs under a fall sky

From Jim VanMaastricht on Flickr (Used with Permission)

Hear my prayer, O LORD;
let my cry come to you.
do not hide your face from me
in the day of my distress.
Incline your ear to me;
answer me speedily in the day when I call.
For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is stricken and withered like grass… (Psalm 102:1-4a)

For the past month or so, I have felt dried up.  I have felt like grass that has been scorched by the hot summer sun and has not been given the nourishing water which can rejuvenate it back to life.

My writing has not only been impacted here on this blog, but my other writing as well: my sermons, my church newsletters, even my written correspondence has been impacted.  I sit in front of a computer with a blank page and a blinking cursor, and instead of creating, I sit.  I sit at my desk with a blank piece of paper before me, which would usually be received with gratitude for the empty space which I could fill.  However, now I sit at it with dread, because the emptiness of that space reflects back to me the emptiness that I experience.

Preparing sermons, which typically brings me joy and fulfillment is now only met with distress as Sunday approaches closer and closer and my sermon remains unwritten on Friday, and Saturday.  My church newsletter still sits on my computer, 4 weeks late, partially finished with paragraphs that are disjointed and do not flow, and do not even contain a coherent message.

Written language, which usually serves as a spillway for when my thoughts burst through the dam, now seems to drain the remaining water in the reservoir.

I appreciate the Psalms, particularly the psalms of lament, because when I am in a situation such as this, when I cannot find words with which to express myself, I have words that have been given to me.

Thanks be to God.  Even through these dry times.

“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.