Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Lenten Alignment

For Christians, today is perhaps the most-counter cultural day of the year.  We are gathered to embrace truths that our culture would rather not face.  In a society that emphasizes human potential, we kneel today to acknowledge our limitations.  In a society that promotes self-esteem, we bow our heads to admit our failures and to acknowledge our faults.  In a society that worships youth and strength and beauty and vitality, we engage in a ritual act that professes our own mortality.  Yes indeed, Ash Wednesday is counter-cultural!

So why do we do this?  What are we trying to accomplish here today?  Let me suggest two potential answers we should reject.

The first is what I call the “Time-Out” answer.  I was a fairly inventive person as a child.  I could figure out any number of different ways to occupy my time; creating a new game, working on a shop project, and don’t get me started on the multiple possibilities of filling time with a hose of running water and dirt!  But often there was a rub.  What I found fun my parents considered destructive.  Time after time, while I was in the midst of some form of revelry or another, my father showed up, surveyed the damage, and lowered the boom.  Think of that as an analogy of what I call the “Time-Out” answer (but believe me when I tell you back in the day we had something much more painful administered to the backside before time out started, which – by the way – we called, “Go to your room”).

The rational for Lent as “Time-Out” is that once a year, in the midst of all our fun and joy in life, we need to be brought up short for a couple of weeks.  As a little boy, I began to anticipate retribution if I was having too much fun.  It was as if the yin of play had to be kept in balance with the yang of you are trouble.  So Lent comes along once a year and in the midst of all our fun, puts us in time out so we can ponder what we did wrong.  The bottom line is this: “Don’t come out of your room, or Lent, until you are sorry for what you did!”

Why is this not a good way to observe Lent?  In a few moments I will say the words of our liturgy inviting you to the observance of a holy Lent.  Nothing about the “Time-Out” approach strikes me as particularly holy.  It feels juvenile and repressive.  I suspect it may have a particular appeal to ex-Roman Catholics and all others who had guilt drilled into them from an early age.  There is something about a church season drawing on guilt that feels meet and right for some folks, but ultimately is more pathological than holy.

So I encourage you to reject the “Time-Out” approach to Lent.  Here is a second possibility I don’t encourage either.  I call it the “Total Depravity” approach in honor of the Protestant reformer John Calvin.  He held that human nature was so fallen on account of original sin that we can do nothing to please God or to save ourselves.  In fact, according to Calvin, we are so totally depraved we cannot even on our own reach out for divine grace and forgiveness.  English reformers held that while human nature was tarnished by sin, we are still capable of doing good and pleasing God who through the Cross of Jesus demonstrates a willingness and deep desire to forgive our sins.

There are some recovering “Total Depravers” lurking around in the Episcopal Church.  They are former Baptists, Fundamentalists, or (like me) originally members of a Reformed tradition.  “Total Depravers” are the folks who work hard, contribute much, reach out, help others, exhibit selflessness, and yet still feel deep down that they are nothing more than a miserable sinner.  They are all too willing to engage Lent because it reinforces what they believe to be true about themselves.  It gives them a chance (drawing on the language of today’s collect) to acknowledge their wretchedness. 

Wretchedness is a strong word, isn’t it.  Given all the churches I have been a part of over the years it goes without saying I have known a lot of people.  Some were real pieces of work, to be sure, but I don’t know that I have ever known a person who was wretched.  Through our baptismal promise we profess a belief that Christ is present in each and every person… including you.  If Lent is for you a kind of wallowing in your self-perceived depravity than you need to find a way to embrace the beauty and grace that is Christ being present in and through you.   

So if Lent is not “Time-Out” and if it is not about “Total Depravity”, what is it?  Why do we engage in this spiritual activity that is so counter-cultural?

Let me suggest that it is about “Alignment”.  What we do this day – and throughout the season of Lent – aligns us with reality as we understand it in the Christian faith.  In a world that says we can have it all, we align ourselves with the Christian reality of our limitations.  We know that we are not perfect.  We know that we don’t control everything.  We know that even our best at times is not enough.  In a world that elevates self-esteem to be an inalienable right, we are comfortable owning up to our mistakes.  We can acknowledge the pain we cause and the brokenness we foster.  In a world that lives in denial of the reality of death we are more than willing to proclaim that we are mortal, formed the dust and to dust we will one day return.

This is reality as we in the Christian tradition understand it.  It is not a reality entirely embraced by the world.  The world’s view, as we see it, is skewed.  It is a distortion and those who adhere to it experience a disconnect with reality.  They are frustrated when faced with limitations, defensive when confronted with failures, and anxious when reminded about death.  If you react to these in any of the same ways then Lent is an opportunity for you to realign yourself with the Christian view of reality.

You see we focus not on what we can’t do, but on what we can.  Given your current limitations, what does it look like to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself?  This is always the question.  And the answer never revolves around what you can’t do… you know, if only I had more money, or if only I had more time, or if only my knees didn’t hurt so much in the morning.  Given who you are right now and what you are capable of doing, how will you love God and your neighbor?  You never have to worry that it doesn’t measure up to what someone is capable of doing.  Heck, you don’t even have to worry about if it measures up to what you yourself used to be able to do.  Given who you are and what you can do today, how will you love God and your neighbor?  This is one way to align yourself with the Christian reality.

Here is another.  You don’t have to be perfect.  You can make mistakes.  While it is never acceptable to hurt another person, it happens, and it happens all the time.  We align ourselves with the Christian reality that we are sinners and from time to time we sin.  What do we do with this knowledge?  Do we get defensive or dismissive or do we try to shift the blame?  No, we accept it.  We openly and willingly confess our wrongdoing, seek to amend our ways, and receive forgiveness as it is extended.

And finally, as we align ourselves with the reality of the Christian life and faith as we face our own mortality, not through fear and denial, but with courage, joy, and the conviction that at death life is changed, not ended, and that there awaits for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.

I invite you to join us Wednesday nights in Lent for our Potluck Dinner & Program where we will explore some of these themes in greater depth.  We will think through why Christians can face mortality with joy and courage.  We will talk about embracing our limitations.  A chaplain from Obici hospital will walk us through quality of life and end of life issues – a topic we have titled “Living on your Own Terms”.  Members of the parish will help us to think about what will happen to our worldly goods – a topic we title “Giving on your Own Terms”.  And finally, we will look at Burial Office itself and provide you with a guidebook that will allow you to record your own wishes for the Celebration of your Life.  For us Christians these are not morbid or depressing topics.  They are ways we align ourselves with reality as we believe it to be.   

One final thought, in just a moment, as I invite you in the name of the Church to an observance of a holy Lent, I will encourage you to engage this season as a time of self-examination and repentance; of prayer, fasting, and self-denial; incorporating reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.  I encourage you to engage these practices not as “Time-Out” nor as a “Total Depraver”, but rather as a way to align yourself with the reality of the Christian faith and life over and against the distortions of this world which can so easily influence us.

Monday, March 3, 2014

As to a Lamp Shining in a Dark Place

Many years ago I spent a couple of days camping at a park on the shores of Lake Ontario just east of where the Niagara River meets it.  It was peaceful and quiet there, especially at night.  I remember sitting on the beach one evening and looking out over the lake as the sun went down.  Eventually it became dark and there were no lights anywhere across the landscape, save one.  Across the lake, just on the line of the horizon, I could see the illuminated skyline of downtown Toronto.  The CNN Tower, which stands at over 1,800 feet tall, was clearly visible, but from where I was sitting looked to be only about a quarter of an inch in height.  I remember being amazed that I could see the city across the lake.  Easily it was thirty miles away or more.  I also remember that try as I might to look at anything else, I could not take my eyes off that lone light in the darkness.

In today’s Epistle reading we heard the words of St. Peter:

“You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place.”

His image of a lamp shining in a dark place is what triggered my memory of that evening spent gazing across the lake.  The lone lamp in the darkness, the single flame of a candle in an unlit room, the faint light of a distant city in the night – each draws and holds our attention as nothing else can.

It is a wonderfully evocative image, isn’t it.  But did you catch what the image stands for in Peter’s letter?  This is what he uses the metaphor to represent:

“Jesus received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’  We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”

For Peter, what he heard God proclaim about Jesus served to confirm everything the prophets of old had written and said about the Messiah to come.  Jesus is that person.  God’s voice confirms that Jesus, the Beloved Son, is the lamp shining in the darkness.  He commands our attention as a lone light in the nighttime.

The season of Epiphany ends this week with the beginning of Lent.  As its name suggests, this is been of time of revealing, discovery, and ‘ah-ha’ moments.  What has been revealed is God’s true nature as made known in the person, words, and work of Jesus. 

This year’s lectionary readings for Epiphany have been drawn from Matthew’s Gospel.  Other years the readings come from Mark, Luke, and John.  During those times we have readings where Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding, commands a raging storm to calm, and effects a human healing.  These epiphanies reveal that, like God, Jesus is not limited to the constraints of the natural world.  It strikes me that this year’s readings offered not one single account of the ‘miraculous’; not one single display of Jesus’ divine power.

The readings we heard fell into two basic groups.  The first few weeks in Epiphany we heard about Jesus’ baptism and his initial experiences with his eventual disciples.  Do you remember how John the Baptist had to keep pointing out Jesus so that those who had been with him in the wilderness near the Jordon River might investigate the Messiah for themselves?  This first phase of readings culminated when Jesus invited Peter, Andrew, James, and John to put down their nets and to follow him in order to fish for people.

The second cluster of readings was drawn from a portion of Matthew’s Gospel known as The Sermon on the Mount.  We heard the Beatitudes (“Blessed are you…”) and a whole host of teachings – many of them very challenging.  Jesus teaches that we are to love our enemies, to turn a cheek to those who strike us, and not to lust, even in our hearts.  Last Sunday Jesus concluded these teachings with this interesting command: “You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Now that is a tall order, isn’t it!

So, in this year’s Epiphany season Jesus has revealed God to the world through two primary actions: creating a community and then discipling that community.  Let me say a word about each.

Creating a community.  We understand God’s very nature to be communal.  Isn’t that what the Holy Trinity is all about?  Three Persons/One Being may be confusing to understand, but put simply it is a community.  God exists in a community of relational harmony that embodies perfect love through mutuality and respect.  The community of God desires not to hoard this love but rather to extend it.  God brings forth all of creation and especially the human family to share in God’s communal life.  We live into this life by being in relationship with God and by being in relationship with one another through “ever-widening circles of fellowship” (to borrow a phrase from the prayer book).  The Church exists to incarnate God’s open invitation to join in community.  We do this, in part, as we live into our baptismal promises to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves”, and as we “strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.” 

God’s invitation of community knows no bounds or boundaries.  The gates of the Kingdom are always open and there is always an empty seat at the table in order to have space for the next guest to arrive.  God exists in community and seeks to extend that community throughout creation.  This is exactly what we saw Jesus doing on those early Sundays after the Epiphany. 

The lessons then shifted to reveal Jesus as discipling the gathering and growing community.  We heard a series of teachings.  Some are difficult to accept.  Almost all are difficult to keep.  And it culminated with Jesus saying that our righteous must exceed that of the Pharisees.  We must be perfect as God is perfect.

I suspect that when most people hear this they think of God’s perfection as being like a measuring stick.  Those religious leaders Jesus dismissed may have thought that way.  They may have thought of themselves as being the standard and measure; conveying overtly a message to that masses that you people are not as good as we are.  But Jesus says they are not the measure and, in fact, they fall far short of the standard.  God as Community is our goal.  Well, on one hand I suppose people were delighted to see Jesus cast aside the notion of hypocritical religious leaders as being role models.  But how worrisome is it that Jesus now sets the bar for discipleship at an impossibly high mark – God’s perfection? 

Do you remember going to an amusement park as a small child and having to stand next to one of those character displays that says you must be so tall to go one this ride?  Well, if you were not tall enough at the time you had a reasonable hope of growing so that next year or the year after you could.  If God’s perfection is that kind of measurement, then we can be assured we will never come close.  

But what if we think of God’s perfection not as the measure of discipleship, but as its destination.  Imagine me sitting on the shores of Lake Ontario gazing at the faint light of that city so far away.  Imagine I decide to get in a boat and start rowing my way toward the city.  With each stroke I get a little closer.  Over time the city appears bigger and brighter than before.  Discipleship is not about meeting a particularly impossible standard.  It is about a journey toward a holy destination.  It is, according to Peter, about paying attention to Jesus the way you would pay attention to a lamp shining in a dark place.  Discipleship is not about being good enough or pure enough, because we are neither.  It is about where you are going and how you are growing and what you are always in the process of becoming. 

As we move from the season of Epiphany to the season of Lent we will be given the opportunity to consider where we are on this journey, to ponder again our commitment to the destination, to consider where we have drifted off course, and to renew our attention to the one who is like a lamp shining in a dark place.