Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Lenten Fast, Week Two

So, how's it going? For all who decided to observe the church season of Lent this year with a fast of some sort, here is the question: How are you doing with it?

If you chose to fast from something that had made its way deep into your soul and daily habits, you should be encountering some significant trouble with it by now. The first few days tend to be fairly easy--a determination to honor the vow made before God will carry for a time of near euphoria. Victory is easy; resistance to temptation a piece of cake.

But the second week of the fast generally rolls out differently. It becomes tedious, challenging. Life pressures hit and with them the temptation to give in, to use whatever you are fasting from to shield you from pain, or offer a comfort of some sort. Here's where the revelation of our own souls begins to take place in earnest.

If you hang in, and continue in the faithful fast, you will discover more about your capabilities. If you give in, and indulge, you will also discover more about your capabilities. If you've given in, do not despair. Instead, remember that God's mercies are always new, and you can indeed "re-up" into the fast. If you've hung in, your next temptation may very well be pride in your accomplishment and this will tell you even more about yourself. In both cases, our tendency is to think we can earn God's pleasure by our obedience or have unearned it by our disobedience. The sin is the same: we've put ourselves up as God, because we've decided we can dictate to God just how God will respond to us. As I told my congregation last week, "Get over yourselves." God loves because God is love--not because you are particularly loveable, or particularly unlovable. You don't earn God's pleasure with a fast. Instead, you discover God's pleasure. Two very different things.

Remember: the goal of the Lenten fast is to aide you in taking a fearless and searching inventory of your soul. To see what is best discarded, to discern what needs to be aired out and put to good use, to polish what has become tarnished, to suffer in order to pray for others who are suffering far worse than you are, and to accompany Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem so that you may discover the real joy of Easter after the time of darkness known as Good Friday. It is a time to explore your salvation, and to correct the path where necessary.

In our church community, many of us have sought to be held accountable by others for the duration of the time of fasting. In this way, we encourage each other, spur one another on to greater glory, and participate in the process of discovery that leads to greater healing and wholeness, words that help describe our salvation. It is not too late to join in this communal observance--God hears our pleas and honors our wishes to receive the good gifts offered to us.

Always remember, Sundays are feast days. Sunday--the day we acknowledge the resurrection. Sunday--the day we set aside to rest and worship and be refreshed in soul, spirit and body. Sunday--on this day we look forward to Easter, to the glory of the risen Christ, coming from darkness and death to life and light. Sunday--the day to feast and laugh again, even in the midst of the solemn fast. Catch the rhythm, cleanse your heart, free your soul.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Wednesday, February 17, marked the beginning of the Christian season of Lent.  It is that yearly time when those Christians who observe the liturgical year take an intentional and honest look at their hearts and the state of their relationship with God.

For some years now, I've seen this time as a place to do a thorough cleaning out.  Like an old-fashioned "spring cleaning," it is a splendid and specified period to take a thorough spiritual inventory. With that inventory, we can discard the things that separate us from the richness of a life lived in harmony with God's heart beat and add the things that would enhance such joy and lightness of spirit.

By the way, do you know why people used to do a thorough spring cleaning?  In houses heated by coal or fireplace, by the end of winter the interior of the homes would be filthy with a layer of coal dust and airborne ash. So, when the weather warmed enough to dispense with those means of heating, everything inside was washed and scrubbed and as much as possible taken outside to hang in the warm sunshine for bleaching and the restoration of freshness.  The sign of a lazy, slatternly homemaker was one who did not engage in this energetic spring cleanse of her household.

I'd suggest that the sign of a lazy, slatternly Christian is one who will not undertake the same discipline with the soul.  

To continue the comparison with spring cleaning, consider this:  while we don't need to shake the coal dust out of our curtains any more, nearly everyone periodically does need to clean out closets and garages, and empty out the inevitable trash drawer that inhabits nearly every house.  You know what I'm writing about--that place where all the oddments are tossed, the key to goodness knows what, the screw found laying around, the coupons you never redeemed, the coins covered with some unknown sticky substance, the child's toy left carelessly on the floor and hurriedly picked up.  Or how about the boxes tossed in the garage, the flower pots which never get replanted, the cans that need to be recycled, the boxes of things that you will "get to eventually?"  

Lent means that "eventually" has come, but instead of that garage and junk drawer (and just think how good you feel when you DO clean those out!), it is time to look instead at these things:  what are the habits that you have developed that harm your body and your soul?  What are the things that you've come to worship this year that have taken the place of a grateful and loving relationship with God?  What are the grudges that you are carrying that rob you of joy and freedom?  Who have you chosen not to forgive?  Whom did you wrong where you never sought to make it right? Where have you crossed a moral line, even the tiniest one, that means you need to hide in some way from exposure?  How have you spent the money that you earned or was given to you?  Did you honor God with a tenth of it freely given away or did you decide that you really needed that bit for some momentary pleasure? Did you get yourself deeper in debt by careless indulgences? How have you treated the least among you?  What are the kinds of things you filled your mind with?  Where do you spend the majority of your leisure time?  Answers to questions like these will open a lot of dark closets of your interior life that really do need a good toss out, and then a wash and scrub job.

The best Lenten observances can be viewed as "Boot Camp" for your soul.  Get to church weekly, pray daily, give up something that is hard, hard, hard to give up so you can see clearly just how addicted you are to it, practice a fearless moral inventory, discard that which is killing you and others, and then discover the delightful exhilaration of Easter morning on April 4 when you can join with the multitudes and shout, "He is Risen, Indeed!"

Monday, February 08, 2010

ON death and dying

This column is titled, "A Pastor's Thoughts" and for nearly four years now, I've written weekly about some of the things bouncing around in my brain as I live my life as pastor of the First United Methodist Church here in Krum.

Today, my thoughts have settled on death and funerals and loss. Last week, Martha Sides died. Martha left her elegant and purposeful mark all over Krum, and all over this church that she loved and served so well. From shrubs planted near the front door to furniture in my office to fabrics reflecting the church seasons draping our altar, there is Martha. 

I miss her. I also know that I'm still recovering from the death of Nancy Pollard, who had served as our church administrator until she had to step down last July as she battled an aggressive cancer that finally took her life in December. 

Two funerals, two friends. I am grieving. As pastor, I have the privilege and the responsibility to officiate at funerals and memorial services. I get to repeat the words of Jesus, "I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last" and remind people of their hope with these words, "Dying, Christ destroyed our death. Rising, Christ restored our life. Christ will come again in glory. As in baptism Martha (or Nancy or whatever beloved person is before us) put on Christ, so in Christ may she or he be clothed with Glory.” I am grateful for such words; they help me find my own hope in loss.

I know there is life beyond this one. I know the light of Easter morning always follows the darkness of death and loss. That hope sustains me. 

I look at my church community and see how they quickly come to the aid of those who have suffered loss. They bring presence, comfort, meals, prayers. I wonder how people who have chosen to remove themselves from the intimacy and challenge of church and faith life cope with loss and death. 

My husband, a retired clergyperson, serves as the "on-call" pastor for a very large funeral home in Dallas. It is not uncommon for him to serve at two or even three funerals or memorial services a week. He does these services for people who have seen a family member die but have no church community to surround them and help hold them during their sorrow. I'm grateful for his calling in this work; I ache for people who are that disconnected from eternal hope. Like many, they turn to the church for these emergency needs, but give God no thought otherwise. 

I know there are lots of reasons people chose to disconnect from church. One of the most challenging for me to hear is the one that says, "The church didn't meet my needs." The consumer demon wins; there is no thought given to the fact that the purpose of church is not to "meet their needs" but to provide a means to know God and discover a measure of hopeful belief even in the midst of natural and human disbelief and a world that denies spiritual reality, and lives as though physical reality can give answers and ultimate peace. Truly, church only "meets one's needs" when we put down our insistence of having our own needs met and replace it with seeking to serve others. 

Martha Sides lived as an example of this kind of service to others. She loved much, and was much loved in return. I miss her. It brings me grief to know that I will not see her again in this life. Even so, hers was a life well-lived and she did open doors for us to the heavenly places by her life in Christ. May we all do as well, even in our sorrow.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Conversation

"OK, in German, nouns have four cases:  nominative, accusative, dative and genitive.  Here, let me show you what I mean in this sentence." 

I overheard this conversation in a sandwich shop recently as I had settled myself for a late lunch with time to work on a message I needed to prepare.  For the next 30 minutes or so, I heard this patient tutor work with a novice student of the German language as he tried to give her a basis to comprehend the layout of a German language sentence, which is considerably different from English.

As the lesson ended, the tutor said to the student something along this line, "Expose yourself as much as possible to the language, even if you don't understand it.  Don't try to translate it.  Instead, see if you can sense what the words mean in context.  Listen to tapes, read it, immerse yourself as much as possible in it in addition to the actual study of the language.  In time, it will start to make sense."

He's right: this is about the only way to learn a foreign language, especially as an adult.  It takes much, much exposure, some structured study, and general immersion in it before it is possible to gain any mastery of the language.  Without those disciplines, the language will continue to sound like rapid and unintelligible babble.  By engaging in those disciplines, a whole new world of people, literature and experiences opens, and one's world is greatly enriched.

I've seen many people dip their toes into the world of the spiritual, and then immediately back away saying, "This is too strange for me.  I don't understand what is going on; the language is too different from my own."  Yes, the language of God-with-us living is very different from no-God living.  It's the language of prayer, praise, thankfulness even in the face of suffering and difficulties, of learning to forgive what seems to be unforgivable, and learning to receive forgiveness when we know we don't deserve it.  It's full of strange words like redemption and reconciliation, and unusual customs like the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday and fasting during Lent and confession before receiving Holy Communion.  The best way to learn it?  Just like learning a language:  study it, expose yourself to it, and immerse yourself as much as possible.  When it starts making sense, all of a sudden the world re-aligns itself and our eyes are opened to holiness, light and hope.  

Most, of course, won't go that far, just as most who begin to study a foreign language stop far short of actual mastery.  But for those who do make the full journey, the immeasurable rewards make it all worth while.  A toe in the water may give you a small sense of what water is, but only full immersion provides the joy of an other-worldly experience.