Last week’s sermon from Church of the Beloved. The audio includes the gospel, but the other readings can be found here:
Last week’s sermon from Church of the Beloved. The audio includes the gospel, but the other readings can be found here:
For anyone who wants an audio version of the Ash Wednesday liturgy and the sermon below, you can hear it below.
He’s cute, right?
I know I’m biased because he’s my kid, but I also think I can pretty objectively say that “skinna-marink-a-dink-a-doooooo” is pretty stinkin’ adorable.
I’m glad to have captured this moment on video because – if I’m being honest – the adorable moments have been few and far between these days and the full-on-three-year-old-meltdown moments have been ALWAYS. We are all on the struggle bus. Getting him dressed should be an Olympic Event. Trying to brush his teeth? It might as well be torture. And while he doesn’t appear to be suffering from malnutrition, it’s hard to be entirely convinced it isn’t a problem because he refuses to eat almost all food. Can a child survive on cereal bars and fruit snacks? I guess so.
After a particularly ugly morning at our house yesterday, my husband and I decided to meet for lunch in an effort to spend at least 20 uninterrupted minutes before our brains had shut down from the exhaustion of the day to talk about how we could come at this as a team. Life doesn’t provide nearly the time we would like to be intentional about our parenting, but it was clear yesterday that we needed to make time.
At our lunch we talked out some of the issues, and a big theme that came forward was the dynamic in our lives right now where – especially on school days – we are making a lot of demands on our little guy without allowing for many moments of connection. We move from one thing to another: breakfast, get dressed, find your shoes, brush your teeth. All the while he’s whining and begging us to read him a book, or play cars with him. In our hustling to get out the door his requests come at us as sheer manipulation and stubborn misbehavior. After work/school isn’t much better because we are making dinner and the baby is crying and we’re all tired and and and… We get more and more frustrated and he becomes more and more defiant.
Perhaps it’s obvious, but these are not the moments I videotape and put on the internet.
As we talked about it more my husband and I realized that we need to be more intentional about connecting with Sam throughout the day. We hung our heads a little bit as we both admitted that even in the moments where we aren’t trying to move to the next thing and instead we are playing cars with him, that we still aren’t very present. Our heads are full of work thoughts, our phones are always within arms reach and often in one hand. We’ll be half-engaged with the activity, watching the baby out of one eye and glancing at our email or Instagram accounts with the other.
Not surprisingly we are reaping the benefits of this inattention. Our son is standing in front of us, his requests for our time and focus getting louder and louder and louder.
So we decided to make a better effort about spending time with our kids and engaging with them in a way that allows for deeper connection. Less phone time, more talking, reading, playing. We aren’t trying to be superheroes or anything – I’m only talking about a half hour or so a day here (the kids still have to figure out how to play by themselves for crying out loud). But we want those moments to be real moments, where our kids are seen and heard and valued.
Oh, and we also decided to use stickers. But that’s less relevant in this story.
So that was yesterday. We had some sweet time with the kids last night and early today and the morning routine was a little bit easier (it was probably the stickers). While it was nice to have the morning go a little more smoothly, what was nicer still was having had more moments of connection. Those moments – even in less than 24 hours – were life-giving. Instead of remembering only the meltdowns and time outs from this morning I also remember watching my husband walk our son through a Valentines Day craft for his teacher after breakfast. Isn’t that lovely?
After the scurry of the morning was over I started to shift gears from Valentines Day to Ash Wednesday. (Unfortunate timing, really. For some reason people seem to be more focused on candy and flowers today instead of mortality and Lent).
Anyone who’s been with me in church during Lent knows that I’m not a fan. I’m not much a fan of Valentines Day either but at least it ends a lot faster. Lent goes on for a VERY LONG TIME. Every year we get to this time and I have to dig deep reset my thoughts on this season, and every year I am finally able to accept and even embrace the season while we move through it. But evidently I’m not convincing enough because as soon as we come up on Ash Wednesday again the next year I start to get grumpy and complainy about the fact that it’s Lent again. Isn’t every year a little much for this? This year is no different. It’s too soon. Lent is too long. I like miracles and mountaintop experiences and pancakes. I don’t have any emotional energy for repentance and silence and ashes.
So once again, I find myself trying to dig deep to change my attitude about this holy season.
Today, during my digging, I kept thinking of my strategy lunch with my husband yesterday. We identified a problem in our relationship with our kid. We were honest about our part in the problem. We committed to changing our behavior to enable deeper connection with our three year old.
I had to shake my head as I made the realization:
Damned if that’s not Lent in a nutshell right there.
“I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the
observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and
meditating on God’s holy Word.”
– from the Ash Wendesday Service, Book of Common Prayer
Lent invites us, year after year, to identify the problems in our relationship with God and in our spiritual lives, to acknowledge our part of the problem, and to commit to changing our behavior to allow for deeper connection with the Divine.
It’s humbling, really, to realize the parallels. That’s what I get for whining.
The problem in our spiritual lives is that God isn’t a three year old child. My son can (and does, daily) look at me and say, “Mommy, I’m talking to you. Are you listening to me?” And when that doesn’t work he can yell and cry and kick his feet and steal a toy from his sister and sure enough I’ll stop what I’m doing to focus my attention on him.
God, on the other hand, tends to be a little less in our faces – at least most of the time. There have certainly been moments in my life where I feel like God has made God’s will for me abundantly clear and I have no choice but to listen. But I’m talking about day in and day out. God isn’t whining and tugging on my leg trying to get me to focus on our relationship and tend to my spiritual life. God is more the “patiently waiting for me to stumble through making my own mistakes until I finally realize I can’t go this alone” kind of presence in my life. Always there, always ready, always yearning for me to realize that what I truly need to thrive is deeper connection with God, first and foremost.
And therein lies the wisdom of the church, despite my attempts to annually rebel against the institution that insists on honoring Lent each year: we need this season. Every year.
We have the opportunity each week in our liturgy to say a general Confession. To acknowledge the things we have done and things we ought not to have done. To ask for God’s forgiveness and to receive absolution.
But let’s be honest – most of us glaze through that part because we know the Peace is coming and it’s hug time. Or bathroom time. Or announcement time. I’m not sure how many of us are truly considering the ways we’ve strayed from God as we utter those words aloud.
Really the least we can do to honor Lent each year. It’s 40 days in the midst of a whole year where we constantly become lost in all of the other demands of our modern lives without making real space for right relationship with God. This is our chance to evaluate, to change our behavior, and to have a deeper connection with God that will be life-giving. Change is hard, and connection is worth the challenge.
Today we are invited into a Holy Lent. We have ashes placed on our foreheads to remind us that we are mortal, that life is short, that we make mistakes and we are given endless chances to make it right, that God is always and ever patiently waiting for our return, calling us closer whether we are able to hear that call or not. This is our chance to reconnect: not because we have to or because we’re in trouble or because the church wants us to be miserable, but because that connection brings life, peace, renewal, and endless, abundant love.
Take God out for lunch today and have a little check in. What are the problems you’re facing right now? What’s your part in it? What changes can you make in your life to live into deeper connection? Now is as good a time as any. The church might even say it’s the best time.
And if you need a sticker chart to map your progress I’m happy to help.
Skinnamarinky dinky dink
God loves you!
Field trips are not commonly part of the pre-camp experience at ECC, but this year we planned a special one.
After just shy of a week of training and work projects with our Junior Counselors, Counselors, and Young Adult Staff, we mixed things up a bit. On Monday morning we piled into cars and vans and headed west. Our destination was Camp Washington – the camp of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. I had worked with their camp director to plan a joint training day for both staffs. More than just the material we covered (behavioral management, songs, and games), it was so valuable just to see another camp. We had a chance to learn their customs and structure, to tour their beautiful property, and to learn that camp people are everywhere. We had a great experience, and it was worth a long day of travel to be with them.
That said, it was a long day of travel, made longer still by an issue with one of our camp vehicles which slowed us down a bit getting there. By the time we left Camp Washington for home it was well past 7pm and it was almost a 3 hour drive back. A busy day in the sunshine had left us all a little worn out, so there wasn’t time or energy for much. I was so proud of my staff and how great they had been all day (especially the unexpected hour plus at Burger King that morning while we fixed the car situation), I wanted to do a little something special on our way back.
With a little help from Yelp I located an ice cream place on the route home that seemed worth a stop. Turns out it was this totally weird and cool place. The ice cream store itself is nestled in a village of businesses that sell sheds, cupolas, outdoor patio furniture, decks, and hearths. The result is that you can get your ice cream, sit on a lovely adirondack glider in front of an outdoor stone fireplace, and look out over a valley of shed rooftops below you. As we walked toward the line through the patio furniture we learned that there was a fundraiser that night for a local family who’s mom was battling cancer. All in all a total win: good ice cream, many comfortable seats on which to enjoy the ice cream, and our money going to a great cause.
As we were finishing up our ice cream one of my staff asked if we were going to do Compline when we got back to camp. I said yes, and she instantly joked that we should do it at the ice cream place. Without missing a beat, she began the service, “the Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night, and a perfect end…”
This is not actually the first time that I’ve been with the staff of ECC doing Compline some place other than camp. It’s kind of a thing. Knowing the service by heart is something that our camp people pride themselves with, and there’s something silly and fun about reciting the service in a completely different location. By this point we were all standing around a large fire pit anyway, so it felt pretty campy. Once she started it, most of the staff joined in. Someone pulled up the service on their iphone and we just went with it – singing and everything.
Admittedly, some of the staff was embarrassed. I can hardly blame them. We don’t exactly live in a culture where public prayer is a socially acceptable practice. The two staff from the ice cream store who were cleaning up and emptying trashes kept looking at us with weird expressions. But we just kept plowing forward, because once you start Compline it’s not like you can just stop it.
We giggled and snorted through most of the service and sang the Te Lucis a little faster than usual. Not the most solemn Compline service, by any means. When it came time for us to offer prayers for ourselves and others the young man responsible for our prayer list read off the names: Tom, Leo, Elaine.
Just as we were about to plow forward with “Guide us waking, O Lord” one other counselor spoke up from around the fire:
“We pray for the family who this fundraiser was for tonight.”
“Yes,” I whispered. “Yes.”
That’s the thing about Compline. That’s the thing about any church service. You can be there because you feel obligated or because someone dragged you there or because you have to be there (camp). You can be bored or sad or angry or restless or horribly embarrassed while you are there. You can go through the motions and it can mean nothing to you – even if you are there in the first place because it means something to you. That doesn’t mean it reaches into your heart every time. Whatever your motivation or reasons for being there, you can go through the motions until all of a sudden something really special happens: something you didn’t see coming and didn’t expect.
I was so struck by the fact that while we were playfully reciting Compline in front of an ice cream store, that one of my staff remembered why we really do Compline. Not for the routine, but for the supplication. The chance to offer our prayers before God, whatever they may be.
We finished the service, sang our closing song, and headed to the cars. Most of them will likely remember that moment with a combination of laughter and embarrassment, and that’s certainly fine with me. But I will remember it as sacred. Because for one moment there, 30 or so staff from a church camp offered prayers for a family that needed some love outside of an ice cream shop, and there is certainly no embarrassment in that.
The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end. Amen.
The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”
Step 2: Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
In the church world, they say that every preacher really only has one – maybe two – sermons in them. When I first heard this I was horrified. I thought surely I can come up with a multitude of sermons on a variety of subjects. But the longer I am in ministry I have to admit that I really do have one sermon. It’s not that I don’t preach on a variety of subjects. More that I have one message that for me is the message that I want my listeners to hear. So I repeat that message in many ways and with many stories, but it is still the same sermon.
The risk of talking about the 12 Steps during Lent is that I’m giving up my secret about my one sermon. Because my one sermon is the third step: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
So there you have it. I hope now that you know my one sermon you’ll keep coming to church anyway.
Last week we talked about Step 1: admitting what things in our lives had power over us and recognizing the unmanageability in our lives. This week the steps lead us to consider a Higher Power, and invite us to turn to that Higher Power for our solution. Step 2 reads that we came to believe a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Step 3 instructs us to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him.
Now one could maybe assume that those of us sitting in church have already come here believing in God, but that’s not really an assumption I’m comfortable making. We have excellent food at our potlucks at Beloved, so maybe that’s why you come. Or maybe you love the music or the friendship, but perhaps you just aren’t sure how you feel about God, or you have trouble finding language for your belief system. I think it’s ok to be not totally sure about how you feel about God. I think it’s ok to have questions. And I think that these two steps can be an invitation for all of us to explore who God is and how God can play a role in our lives.
One of the things I have always loved most about the third step is that it allows us to form a God of our own understanding. And you’ll notice the language – we turn our will and lives over to the care of God. We aren’t turning our lives over to the judgement of God, or the anger of God or the wrath of God. Instead we are giving our lives to someone who will care for us. My reading of scripture has also always led me to believe that I am cared for and loved by God, but I’ll also admit that some passages of scripture have caused me some confusion as I make my way to that understanding. In those moments, this step has reminded me that my own experience of God can be my greatest informant about God. And when I read scripture through the lens of my own experience, it helps me to understand the messages in a way that helps me to feel more whole and less confused.
Abraham’s story is a great example of that for me, and is a wonderful passage of scripture to explore the first two steps. First, a quick recap on his story: Abraham is getting on in life and has settled into his retirement with his wife Sarah who he never had children with when suddenly God speaks to him and tells him to pack up shop and hit the road. God wants him to move to a new land, and in return for his faithfulness promises that Sarah will have a child. This seems a little unbelievable to Abraham and Sarah who thought that ship had sailed, but their experience of God’s message in that moment was so clear that they believe it – they believe God will restore them to sanity – and they do as they are asked.
As is so often the case though, God’s promise doesn’t come through immediately, and Abraham gets a little impatient. He and Sarah try to take matters into their own hands, and they make some questionable decisions. The passage we read above comes after their attempt at taking back the control. God speaks to Abraham again, reminding him of his promise. God tells Abraham to look at the stars and says “See this number? So shall your descendants be.”
I’ve always really appreciated Abraham’s willingness to change his whole life to follow God’s will. I think in our own lives sometimes we hope that God’s will for us is going to be just a little thing – maybe a small adjustment to our daily practice or treatment of ourselves or others. And sometimes that is what God is asking of us. Other times we’re asked to do what Abraham has been asked – total life change. Those changes can be scary and unsettling, but in my own experience have led to such incredible blessings.
I have also always appreciated the way Abraham becomes totally skeptical and tries to take control into his own hands. Because how many times have I done the same thing??? How many times have I said to God “ok, the road is clear and I’m going to walk it” and then I get halfway down the road and nothing seems clear anymore and I get confused and tired and instead of trusting the process I start to mess with it myself?
I can’t say specifically, but let’s just leave it at a lot of times.
Notice what happens in the story though: God does not punish Abraham for doubting him. God does not take back his promise. Instead God offers a gentle reminder of what he has in store for Abraham, and renews his promise in this beautiful way.
We are not punished for our human inclination to want to be in control. Instead we are gently reminded that we aren’t in control. We are reminded that God is in charge. We are reminded that we always have the option of turning our lives over to the care of God, and that when we do – blessings abound.
The homework for this week is to get yourself a God box – it can be a box of any size or design. Each time you find yourself trying to control something (and remember the way control can manifest itself – worry, obsession, managing, etc) go ahead and write it down on a slip of paper and put it inside the God box. Physically turn it over to God.
Once you’ve done that, go ahead and pay attention to how often you mentally try to take whatever you’ve written back from God. It’s always entertaining to go through the process of giving our lives over to God and then noticing our Abraham moments where we try to take them back.
Remember, we have the option at any time to turn our will and our lives over to God so that we might be restored to sanity – we just have to take it.
If it is easier for you to listen to this post instead of reading it, here you go!
After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Step 1: We admitted that we are powerless [over alcohol] and our lives have become unmanageable.
I want to start this by explaining a little bit of my own connection to the 12 Steps. When I was 20 years old I started attending Alanon meetings. Both of my parents were alcoholics, and as I was trying to navigate adult relationships (specifically one of a romantic nature) I was starting to feel like perhaps my upbringing in an alcoholic family system was starting to play a role in my thoughts, feelings, and actions.
While I had been exposed to the 12 Steps through family members before, I couldn’t believe the impact they had on me as I started going to meetings myself. I can say without hesitation that I would leave a meeting, and for reasons I couldn’t even totally explain life would just be a little bit easier. I learned about how I can’t control other people (in Alanon we often change “alcohol” to “people, places, and things” in the first step), I learned the importance of keeping my side of the street clean, and I learned about putting my whole life in God’s hands. It was truly life changing.
Now, in the spirit of full disclosure I should also mention that I haven’t been to a meeting in a long time. So I want to reiterate what I said in my last post. I’m doing this because I believe that the 12 Steps are wonderful tools to draw us closer to God and to set the stage for a spiritual awakening. But I am not an expert and we are not working the 12 Steps together during Lent. I simply want you to know more about them, so you can do with them as you please.
So that’s where I’m coming from when I say the 12 Steps have had a profound impact on my life. I grew to love them through family members who changed their lives through AA and NA, and I experienced them myself. The tools I learned in Alanon still inform so much of my life today.
This week we’ll begin with the Step 1 and only Step 1. Honestly we could spend all of Lent on this step but I thought I’d mix it up a little. The very first part of this program is as follows: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and our lives had become unmanageable.
I think it’s important to reiterate that “alcohol” can be filled in with almost anything else. For a long time for me this was most useful by substituting “people”. I was powerless over other people. It’s so easy to believe you can change someone else, and so hard to fully realize that the only person you can change is yourself. But again –it could be anything. You could be powerless over sugar, shopping, social media, drugs, food, alcohol…the list goes on and on. I’m not suggesting everyone is an addict, but I am saying that it’s part of the human condition to think that we can be in control of things when really we just can’t.
Trying to control things we can’t control though – well that’s when we wind up in the wilderness. Which is where we find Jesus in our scripture this week. Here he is for forty days and nights with no food and he is constantly being tempted by the devil. The devil wants him to believe he has the power, constantly trying to lure him in.
Now I want to stop for a second and say that I get a little tripped up when we talk about the devil because I’m not actually sure if I believe in evil as one being the way we talk about it in scripture. So because I’m not sure about that, I try not to speak definitively about Satan. But I do think that evil is real, and that temptation is real. And I know all too well the feeling of being exhausted and overwhelmed trying to get out of the wilderness when suddenly some kind of short cut pops up and causes me to believe that there’s an easier way out rather than doing the hard work. How many times have I tried to calm myself down at the end of a tough day with a new outfit, a glass of wine, or a tray of brownies? And I’m not saying one glass of wine is Satan – but I am saying that if we aren’t careful and we constantly rely on these outside things to make us well, then suddenly life might start to look a little unmanageable.
That’s where the second half of this Step helps us to determine if we are in the wilderness. Because we look around and see that life is starting to look really unmanageable.
Unmanageability can be a slippery subject too. There are certainly lots of very real reasons why life can become unmanageable. But we have to be cautious about always having excuses for why our lives continue to unravel. The beauty of the first step is that it can help us to identify when life is unmanageable because of our own behaviors and choices. Maybe life is unmanageable for me because I have a baby right now and he doesn’t always sleep well. But maybe life is unmanageable because I stay up really late every night because I need “me” time because my attempts at caring for myself during the day aren’t really all that caring. Time on Facebook does not help me to feel deeply connected to God the way exercise, meditation, or even a nap does. But damned if I don’t scroll my newsfeed in the few quiet moments I have every day. Friends – I am powerless over Facebook and it is causing my life to become unmanageable.
So our work is to take a look around and see where our lives might be unraveling. We might not be as strong as Jesus who is able to so quickly see through Satan’s allure and point only to God. But with practice we might be better able to recognize the temptation for a quick fix that will only serve to make us feel worse about ourselves in the long run, and maybe that recognition can help us to make a better decision.
This week, I want to invite you spend some time thinking about the two parts of this step. First, what are you trying to control in your life that you simply cannot control? And second, where are you seeing glimpses of unmanageability? If you are seeing glimpses of unmanageability, maybe consider whether or not the two might be connected.
This work might lead you to a major “aha” moment in your life. More likely, it might help you to realize something new about how you try to make people, places, and things fill the space in your life that only God can fill.
Next week we’ll spend more time talking about how God can fill that space. But this week, take a look around and see if maybe you find yourself in the wilderness. Then consider how you might have gotten there.
If you’d rather listen to this blog post (a large part of which was my Ash Wednesday Sermon) instead of reading it, you may do so here:
On Tuesday night of this week I had the honor of being the guest preacher at St. Augustine’s Church on the URI campus for their monthly Recovery Eucharist. The Archdeacon of our Diocese, Jan Grinnell, created this service to provide a church experience for people who have experience with the 12 Steps. The liturgy is a lovely blend of Episcopal language and the language used “in the halls” of meetings. Because I have been blessed by 12 Step Programs personally and through my loved ones, I have been invited to preach on a couple of occasions at this service.
The service uses the readings from the previous Sunday, and so we were once again hearing the story of the Transfiguration with Jesus, Elijah, Moses, Peter, James, and John. In my preaching I talked about what it’s like to have a spiritual awakening of that magnitude and then have to come back down off the mountain. I talked about how hard it is to recreate our mountaintop experiences as much as we try, but if we keep at our daily connection with God after those experiences we inevitably set ourselves up for another awakening down the road.
You can watch the sermon here https://staugustineuri.org/sermons/. I wish my stole wasn’t crooked, but this is a chronic issue for me.
One of the ways I weaved recovery language into my sermon was by talking about the 11th and 12th Steps as part of how we keep connecting with God after our spiritual awakenings. The 11th Step is as follows:
Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of his will in our lives and the power to carry that out.
Now I was still digging the Transfiguration at that point, but I also knew that I was on the eve of Ash Wednesday and the start of our Lenten Season at church. And I have a haaaaaard time with Lent as much as I love it. Anytime we start talking about things like “discipline and “repentance” and “self-denial” I start to get a little wigged out. It feels like the kind of oppressive religion that I have tried to so desperately to get away from – a religion that is laden with guilt and obligation instead of joy and abundance.
As a result of my uncertainty about Lent I am constantly searching for other language to use around this time. I need to re-invent Lent for myself in order to live into it more fully. As I preached on Tuesday night about the 11th Step, I couldn’t help but think that it offers us wording that can help to broaden and enhance the language the church uses. Because when I have taken on a Lenten discipline, this is exactly what has happened to me: I have improved my conscious contact with God. Giving something up for Lent jolts me out of my complacency and reminds me that I am in a different season. A season where I am invited to be more connected to God and less connected to the things that distract me from God.
Last year I posted Brené Brown’s video about the power of vulnerability. In it she talks about how she noticed in her research that people who believed they were worthy of love and belonging had something in common: they lived whole-heartedly. And what allowed them to live whole-heartedly was their willingness to be vulnerable. She talked about how because we are afraid of vulnerability – or bad feelings in general – we tend to numb those things out. But when we numb out the bad feelings, we can’t help but numb out the good ones too.
There are so many ways that we can choose to numb ourselves to our feelings and what is happening around us. I love Brené’s call to be vulnerable. It echoes the Invitation to Lent that we read at our Ash Wednesday service. Lent invites us to stop what we are doing, to take stock of who we are and what our relationship with God looks like. Lent invites us to REPENT: to turn back to God who yearns to be close to us. Admitting the ways that we have let down ourselves and others takes vulnerability. But that vulnerability offers us the opportunity to bask in God’s loving mercy and forgiveness. This process of repentance allows us to be whole-hearted – and why wouldn’t we want that for ourselves?
Last year I spent some time inviting the folks I go to church with to take on a Lenten discipline (even though the word makes me cringe every time!). I will invite my church family to do that again this year, as I have had such positive experiences taking one on myself. But this year, in addition to just asking people to take something on, I’d like to offer a concrete way for people to improve their conscious contact with God during this Lenten season.
So I have a plan. Because my life has been so profoundly impacted by the 12 Step Program, and because those steps have helped me improve my own conscious contact with God, I’m going to spend Lent explaining and unpacking the steps in my sermons on Sunday. Call it a “Lenten Preaching Series” if you will, except that sounds a little too fancy for me.
Each week I’ll talk about one or a few of the steps as it pertains to our scripture readings. And then….wait for it… I’ll offer some homework.
WHAT? Homework in church?
I know, but it won’t be that bad. It will be an invitation to think about something, reflect on your life and your behavior, and try to grow yourself a little bit. My hope is that the homework will help you improve your conscious contact with God.
For anyone who can’t be at church during Lent I’ll go ahead and post a version of the sermon and the “homework” here on the blog, so you can participate even if you can’t get yourself to Pascoag.
A couple of quick things about this idea:
So the purpose of this activity is simply to give you a Lenten project that’s a little more tangible. Because I mean it when I invite you to a Holy Lent.
I invite you, through prayer and meditation, to improve your conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for you and the power to carry that out.
Like many priests and Christians, Easter Sunday is my favorite day of the whole year. One of my top two reasons for wanting to be ordained was so that I could proclaim “Alleluia, Christ is Risen!” on Easter morning. (If you’re interested, the other reason was so that I could say “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” These remain two of the best parts of the priesthood for me).
As much as I love Easter Sunday, I love the Sunday after Easter just as much. Considered a “low” Sunday in the church (because after everyone exhausts themselves with Holy Week and Easter services attendance is often low the week after) Easter II provides us with what I consider the only appropriate passage of scripture to follow the news of Christ’s Resurrection.
On Easter II we hear the story of Thomas, who had evidently stepped out of the room where the disciples were locked after Christ’s crucifixion, and upon his exit misses the first appearance of the Risen Christ to the disciples. He comes back from wherever he was and his buddies try to tell him that Jesus is back. Like any clear-thinking, rational, and sane human being, Thomas replies with a variation of: “Yeah, right. I’ll believe that when I see it”.
The telling of this story is such a gift to all of us the week after Easter. As much as I love proclaiming the Resurrection, the reality is that this story is unbelievable. Resurrection is impossible – the idea outrageous. And as humans we struggle to wrap our heads around the fact that Jesus comes back to life. So I always appreciate that Thomas responds to this event with a hefty dose of skepticism and disbelief. He was a disciple, after all. He saw Jesus do all kinds of crazy things. And he still isn’t buying Resurrection.
I encounter a lot of doubt in my work with teenagers at ECC. Many of the teens that come to camp are exploring their faith, asking questions, and trying to figure out what they believe. When I ask them straight out what they believe I get a variety of responses, but what I can generally glean is this:
– most of them believe in some kind of higher power
– some of them believe in Jesus
– few of them believe in the Church
These are hard truths for me to share, especially as a leader in a church that is facing fears about our viability in a secular world. We talk a lot about wanting young people to be more involved in the church, and we brainstorm how to get them to come to church. Admittedly, teenagers are in a particular stage of life where doubt and questioning are really common parts of development, but I think it’s important for us to acknowledge this reality.
I work with teenagers who devote their whole summer to living and working (for hardly any money) in Christian community. We celebrate the Eucharist every day. We talk about God all the time. And even these most involved and committed young people can’t make a definitive statement about whether they believe in Jesus. They are extremely skeptical about organized religion. And with good reason! We haven’t always have the best reputation.
I can get a little freaked out when I talk to these teens. I can be tempted to do a whole song and dance about how great the church is. I find myself wanting to make a hard sell about why they should believe, and how real Jesus is in my life, and how much the church has done for me and so many others. But instead I have to take a deep breath and just keep listening to them. Which is when I hear this:
– “This place is a second home for me.”
– “When we sing the songs at church in the barn I always feel my heart swell.”
– “The friends I have made here allow me to be completely myself with no judgement.”
Then I consider the second part of Thomas’ story. The part when, despite his disbelief, Jesus appears before him and reaches out his hand, allowing Thomas the very thing he said he needed: a chance to put his finger in the wound in Jesus’ hand.
This story could have ended a lot differently. It could have ended with nothing. Thomas could have been punished for his doubt, and because of it could have been robbed of the opportunity to stand in front of the Risen Christ. But he is not punished. Instead he is given the experience of the Divine. He gets to stand in the presence of the Resurrection. He knows new life, and God the Son reaches out to him in love.
It’s so freeing to know that we aren’t punished for doubting. I don’t struggle with doubting the existence of God in my life, but when I’m not inappropriately hyper-focused on someone else’s spiritual journey (or lack there of), I can pay attention to my own enough to realize that I certainly doubt whether or not God is going to show up for me. I’ll give over some aspect of my life to God, praying for God’s will to be made clear and then I’ll change my mind and try to take back the control because probably my ideas for my life are better anyway. Yeah, right. I’ll pray for God to transform something in my life and then, convinced transformation won’t happen, I’ll try to manage it myself (which always totally works…). Or one I’m really proud of, I’ll decide since God has come through for me so many times before I’ve probably used up all my chances and he’s getting bored with me and has better things to do. So I’ll be convinced that the bottom is about to fall out of whatever life thing I’m trying to navigate.
But here’s what I’ve learned: God always provides. God does not give up on us. God does not punish us for doubting. We are invited, again and again, to stand in the presence of the Risen Christ and put our finger in the wound. We are given the opportunity over and over again to experience the transformative love of God. We get to feel our hearts swell when we sing songs together. We get to find a second home with people we love. We get to be our authentic selves and be celebrated. No matter how much we question or doubt or fail to show up for God, God shows up for us. And that’s an Easter message I can get behind.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
John Granville Gregory’s Still Doubting