Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Second Chances (and 3rd blogs for the day)

OK - - so here's another angle that might be more Lent-y. It's also more "personal" which is something I got some critiques about a couple of months ago. The critique really was that my sermons don't tell people how to apply the Scripture to their life. In many ways I actually see that as a compliment more than a criticism, but I think maybe part of what was being expressed was a desire (thirst?) to hear a word not just to the church body, but to those who are individually members of it. I tend to preach to the body more than to people. I tend to preach to the church, not to individuals who are also on their own walk of faith. We've had quite a few visitors coming lately, some of whom have not had a church home in a number of years, some of whom have are "babies in faith." I don't think that criticism was inappropriate so I've been trying to fit in a few that still don't give all the answers (as if I HAVE all the answers), but are more for people in their faith walk instead of just the community as we walk together. Since my "normal" is preaching to the community as the audience I don't think I need to worry about being too "Me 'n' Jesus"-y.

Whew! All that is to say, I'm feeling maybe a little prompted by pieces of the commentary I've seen about Samuel, his grief, his anger, and MAYBE his feeling of failing (even if he may not have really failed) with Saul. Here in 1 Sam 16, then might be a GLORIOUS word about second chances. Not a bad word at all for mid-Lent when my own disciplines aren't going so well. Not a bad word at all for mid-life when we haven't been as connected to God as we may have liked. God doesn't dwell in that. God picks up (and picks us up) and moves us on to the next big thing.

Hmmm... Now I don't know what I want to do.

A Cinderella story

Some of the NCAA Basketball tournament brackets have helped give me a way into this Samuel story. Maybe. I'm not a HUGE basketball fan, but we all know the story of of "Cinderella" teams. Shoot, if we don't know Cinderella teams, I bet everyone knows Cinderella's own story. That will work with this version of how David came to be king.

Jesse and Samuel looked at all the likely candidates when Samuel was sent to find a replacement for Saul, but none of them were quite right. In fact, Jesse had written off David so badly he didn't even invite him to the party. It never crossed his mind that David could be the one to anoint.

How many of God's plans to we disregard because they don't fit our understanding of what is blessed? How many opportunities do we miss? How many callings do we ignore?

I think this is the direction I'm going. Now I need to go read up on VCU.

Ewww, John! That's gross!

People in the church often ask me how I choose the Scripture I'm going write a sermon about each week. Always wordier than I need to be, I go into a little explanation of the lectionary then talk about how I consider what's going on in the lives of the folks in our congregation, the life of our congregation as a whole, and life in the world around us. Blah blah blah, add some prayer, and I've got a sermon text.

This week the process is much simpler and much less spiritual. Spit. EW! I have an almost pathological aversion to saliva. As a kid (and by kid I even mean teenager) I would even avoid brushing my teeth as a long as I could to avoid the whole spit thing. It makes my tummy churn even now just typing about it.

So, John, great story, and I'm sure there's plenty to learn about within and from it, but I just can't do it. I can't read it aloud or listen to it being read. I can't write a sermon when that might be a part of what I have to say. I can't.

Samuel? Here I come!!!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

So Thirsty

John 4:5-15
Exodus 17:1-7

The Sinai peninsula was dry like no other dry I had experienced. Before my trip to the Middle East back in 2001 I had spent precious little time in deserts - a few trips to Arizona to visit my grandmother were my only reference points for the kind of climate I would experience, but really not even they could prepare me for the desert of the Sinai peninsula. Not even the previous 10 days of travel through the deserts of Syria and Jordan could.

Those deserts had been dry, sandy and dry, but Sinai was, to me, even worse. It wasn't sandy-dry; it was dusty-dry, and dusty-dry is a dry that sneaks into everything. It's a dry that permeates every barrier. Even our hired motor coach bus couldn't protect us from the dust that hung in the air, tickled our noses, and burnt our throats. The landscape we saw just mocked us through the window; the wadis, the dry riverbeds taunted us with the idea of water, but there was none to be found.

Well, except for the water in our water bottles, a luxury we had in 2001, that obviously the Israelites did NOT have several millennia before. They had nothing. They left Egypt just as the Lord had commanded with great haste and no luggage, and therefore relied completely on the land, their leader, and their Lord to get them through the dry, desperation of traveling through the desert of Sinai.

So, sure they grumbled. Sure they started to voice their complaints when they got thirsty. Who couldn't and who wouldn't? We all know that water is the most important things for our bodies. We can live for a while without food, but a lack of water is deadly. They weren't just complaining about missing an afternoon snack, or begging for a luxury; they were crying out for a necessity. They were begging for something as simple, but as crucial for their lives as water!

The woman at the well was thirsty, too. I mean, she was coming to the well for water at the middle of the day. I wonder how long she had been out of water. Did she spill her jar doing the morning wash and was now craving something to drink when the sun was highest in the sky and her thirst was deepest? Or did she always come at that time of day, as many have suggested, because she was ashamed of her own life? Was she avoiding the crowds that gathered in the morning to fill the jars with water and their minds and mouths with gossip? She came to the well thirsty, oh so thirsty, for water that would cool her body and refresh her soul.

Are you thirsty? Are you thirsty? Are your jars just about empty? Is the dry air getting to your throat? Are your hands cracking like the dusty, dry earth? Is your soul parched, on the verge of grumbling, complaining, crying out to God and anyone else who will hear, "Give us water to drink! Give me water to drink!?" Are you thirsty for water that runs clearer and flows deeper than your deepest longing?

I believe we are thirsty. We grumble as we walk in dry places in our lives. We are thirsty for reassurance. We are thirsty for guidance. We are thirsty for compassion. We are thirsty for community. We are thirsty for wisdom. We are thirsty for renewal. We are thirsty for justice. We are thirsty for forgiveness. Prone to wander about in the wilderness of our making we are thirsty for God, but we don't even realize it.

We go looking in a million other places, drinking from a million other cups for satisfaction. We drink from the news for information, when wisdom is what our souls cry out for. We gather on computers for friends and followers when communion is what we need. We dip our buckets into wells of self-help, when the Word of God is what gives life. We crave in the deepest corners of our being to be known as the woman is known - to be known and accepted and forgiven.

I'm not sure we always recognize it, but we are thirsty for God. We are thirsty for the Living Water that cleans, that refreshes, that nourishes, and restores. We are thirsty for Living Water that never runs dry, but sustains us, heals us, and reinvigorates us for life in a parched land.

The grumbling may have frustrated Moses, but if it frustrated God we'll never know. If anything it gave God another chance to prove faithfulness, to show willingness to be with God's people in each and every need, each and every time they hunger and thirst, each and every time they cry out for salvation, for mercy, for love. The people of God were thirsty for God's attention and God's compassion and in the most unlikely of circumstances, in the middle of the dry, cracked earth of the desert, from a solid chunk of dry, heavy rock, God's grace flowed for them. God's provision came pouring out. God's presence ran freely for all to drink in.

The women who encountered Jesus was thirsty for water from the well, but it became apparent quickly that she was thirsty for something else, too. She was thirsty beyond her physical needs; she was thirsty like we are, in her soul. And like it happened for the Israelites, the water of life came flowing from an unexpected place, a place she went everyday, but a place where she encountered someone completely new.

The water of life, Living Water, came flowing from a stranger who knew her as well as she knew herself, better even. It came from a man who probably shouldn't have been speaking to her. It came when she left the safety and comfort of her shelter and risked conversation, risked relationship with Jesus.

This is the water Jesus offers. This is the water that comes gushing forth from the very wellspring of his life, a well that is right in front of us, but it is also, for some reason, where we least expect it, where we last look. It is here, right in the midst of us and around us and over us and under us. It is here when the church is the beloved community, caring for one another, serving one another, forgiving one another. It is here when we dive into the Scriptures for study, for prayer, for sustenance for our souls. It is here when we worship the living and loving God. It is here when we don't even notice it, when we aren't looking for it, but when it finds us, offering a drink that brings us peace we didn't even know we were missing.

This is the water Jesus gives. It is the water we are blessed to drink in long, drawn out gulps that fill our thirsty souls. It is the water that fills us up and sends us out into the world with energy and excitement and passion, telling others where to find this well of Living Water.

When the woman met Jesus at the well she was thirsty, oh so thirsty. She came for water that would quench her thirst and in Jesus she found water that satisfies even more. Recognizing the blessing she found, she left, she left immediately, even leaving the very jar she came to fill, and went back to the city to tell what had happened. "Come," she said to anyone who would listen. "Come," she said in her home, in the shops, to her neighbors, to strangers!

Come to the living water! Come!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday Five: Spiritual disciplines

Long story short, Mary Beth and RGBP asked about 5 spiritual disciplines we have (or have tried). Just thinking about it is making me feel completely inadequate. I'll at least start with the positive.

1. In junior high and high school I was MAD about devotional books, the kind with a little section to read every day, a Bible passage, and some questions for reflection. I LOVED them and used them, ha ha, religiously. I have many of them still around our house because I wrote notes in many of them. Others I used my journal for recording my thoughts.

2. My journal. It's the second most positive. I don't know if it counts as a spiritual discipline. I often say it is, but truthfully I don't know if I'm just telling myself that to make myself feel better about my LACK of discipline or if it really is. It's a place of reflection and processing of the day, but there is rarely anything intentional spiritual about it. I don't put "Dear God" at the beginning and "Amen" at the end, but it is sort of letter- or prayer-like. I'm not sure. I can't fall asleep without writing even if (and often now that there are 3 kiddos in my life) it is something very short and sweet. So maybe, maybe not.

3. This year's Lenten discipline - - writing my prayers. I like the book, but as usual I haven't been very disciplined about it. I started out strong. I thought I'd do some here on the blog and some in my journal, but it was all in my journal in the end. I should be at like day 12 or 14 or something, right? I'm on day 8, I think. I like the idea; it's the timing that isn't working for me, right before bed. However, I haven't found another time that would work better. I should choose to stop and pray before watching TV instead of trying to squeeze it in after, but I haven't yet. Maybe tonight. (Pathetic)

4. I'm really trying to think of something else that's positive, but it's just not coming. Another failed attempt that bothers me more than my own failed attempts is keeping up a spiritual discipline with my kids. We had a great night time routine for reading, singing, praying, but that all sort of slipped away when LadyPrincess and Godzilla moved into the same room last year and got bunkbeds. We don't have the same sort of cuddle time that leads to that routine. We still read , but it's much less relaxing and cute with two wiggly (possibly bickering) ones than it was when we divided and conquered and each parent took care of one kid for bedtime. At least we've picked back up with the mealtime prayers that had sort of gone out the window a few months ago. That's better than nothing, but it's not really where I'd like to be.

5. How 'bout for the last one I stop mourning what I've NOT done and just go for a recommitment to my Lenten discipline. It's horible to say, but the time is so difficult to carve out even when I do believe it's important. What is with that? I think another spiritual discipline I have wanted, but I have not kept up in the way I would like is this blog. I'd like to engage more with the RGBP community. I want to read other people's writing more and contribute more to the material there is to read. I want to connect in a spiritual and personal way with folks, and that means making the time to do it. I crave the kind of community and friendship I see others in the ring have, but that I know I don't prioritize even though I want it. One silly problem I have is keeping track of everyone's names. I don't know who is who, but maybe that will sort itself out as I get more engaged and better about reading around.


Sunday, March 20, 2011

Holy Disruptions

Psalm 121
Genesis 12:1-9

The summer between my junior and senior years of college I decided, so I thought, to forgo the usual tradition of getting an internship in one's major field of study in order to help the job search process a year down the road, and instead I spent my last summer before "real life" began as a camp counselor at a Presbyterian camp.

At the end of our 2 weeks training that included lifeguard certification for me and a WONDERFUL 3 day staff canoe trip for all of us, we received our first assignments. My first two week assignment would include being the trip leader and lifeguard on a 4 days middle school canoe trip. Uh oh.

This was the kind of camping I may have overstated in the interview process. I was familiar with CAMP, but not necessarily CAMPING, the kind where the van takes you to one point on the river, watches you drop your canoes and gear in the water, and then waves goodbye. The only other plan for the trip is that the van will pick you up at a designated meeting point somewhere farther down the river, 4 days and 3 nights later. There are no state or county parks along the way. (Hear me say in that, there are no bathrooms along the way.) There are no designated campsites. The only consolation I had as a VERY inexperienced river camper is that the second portion of our trip was the same trip we had taken as a staff. Eventually, there would be signs that I had led the group on the right path. Eventually.

I panicked a bit when I got the assignment. What happens if someone gets hurt? You received first aid training, the director told me. What happens if we take a wrong turn? There are no forks in the river, the trip director told me. What happens if we can't find a campsite? There's always SOMEWHERE, an experienced counselor told me. When will I get my cell phone? You won't, they all replied. I was sure I was not ready for this assignment and this responsibility.

If he had known about them, I'm convinced Abram would have asked where his cell phone was, too. This trip God announced was not his trip originally; it was his father's trip. Abram was "Abram of Ur of the Chaldeans;" Ur was in modern day Iraq. God called Abram from "his country," but when he leaves he doesn't leave from Ur; he leaves from Haran. In modern day Turkey, not Iraq. Haran was "his country," and had been for some time since his father had died leading his family on a journey toward Canaan.

The trip to Canaan had been his father's trip, not Abram's. Apparently when they passed into Haran along the way, not really right along the way, they decided to stay for a little while. Unfortunately, while they were there Abram's dad died, and Abram decided to just stay at least long enough for Haran to become, in the Lord's words, "his country."

Abram's life had been disrupted once before when his father felt the need to move the family from Ur to Haran on the way to Canaan. Here it was getting disrupted again when the Lord came calling to an older, settled Abram. Here it was getting disrupted by the Lord telling Abram to finish the trip he started with his father and make his way from Haran on down to Canaan. Late in his life, God called Abram out of retirement to move his family, all the possessions they had gathered, all the people associated with their household and move to a new and different place.

The excuses could have been innumerable. But we're old, God. We've settled here, and we're happy. We have all these new employees who will be uprooted from their lives and their families. Where will we sleep along the way, no matter when we get there? What if someone gets hurt? What if I get hurt? What will happen to my wife? What if I don't know the right way? Can I have a cell phone?

Like Abram, no matter what our age, no matter how settled we are in our lives, God calls us to new and different places. God calls us to make changes in our lives, our thinking, our routines. God disrupts our comfortable, settled lives and asks us to do new things, meet new people, go new places, even if not physically, than in our thinking, our believing, our relationships, our activities and involvements. God breaks in just when we think we are settled and have everything in order, knowing what we like to do and how we life to do, and calls us to try something new, serve in a different way, follow to places we haven't even imagined going. It's a disruption, but it's a holy disruption.

This morning, of course, we are highlighting some possible disruptions, some place God might be calling you or your family. Camp is getting a lot of attention, of course, but there are other holy disruptions out there, other unfamiliar lands to which God may be calling any of us. Synod School isn't as exotic as Canaan, but driving through Corn State can seem like a epic biblical journey. It's not far, but it's away. It's not what we usually do. It's not a part of our routine for the summer, and we don't know exactly what to expect.

Working with our friends in the new garden we are building for them doesn't involve a journey hundred or thousands of miles away, but the setting is new. The people and the conditions they live with are different than what many of us are used to. It can seem like an intimidating call. It's unknown, unfamiliar, a little bit scary.

Sending our children to camp or going on the Mishpack mission trip isn't the same as moving forever to a new land, but it means traveling to a different place, a different culture even within the bounds of the same country. They do things in a different way in these places, play different games, eat different favorite meals, order their lives into different routines. It can be frightening to be the new person, the uninitiated, the foreigner in an established country.

Volunteering to provide our local day camp ministries might not be on our calendar or we may think we have "done our time," serving this way before, but God keeps calling. God's time is not our time. God's expectations are not our expectations. There is room and a purpose for all of God's people in the ministry God intends to accomplish. Abram and Sarai, seventy-five years old, are only just getting started when God uproots them from their country, their settled lives and calls them to continue down to Canaan.

The excuses we can make are all familiar. I don't have time. I'm not equipped to help. I'm not the right age - - too old, too young, too busy somewhere in the middle. I don't know enough about it to lead my family that direction. I don't know enough about it to accomplish the task correctly. I'm happily settled in my life and my routine; I don't need to mess it all up with something new. I just don't see the point.

God anticipated all the excuses right up front with Abram. Before he even got a chance to lay them all out before God, the Lord stated the case for the call. Abram, the Lord promised, will be blessed in making the journey. Abram and his family after him will be blessed, changed in ways they never would have imagined or experienced if they stayed put in Haran, if they resisted the new and unknown. He would know the unique blessing of those who look to the hills and mountains and trust that God is their help. He would know and experience the blessing of being united with God in purpose and mission. He would live with the blessing of comfort and peace of mind knowing his family and descendants (another unexpected blessings) could call to mind their memories of his faithfulness long, very long after he would be gone from this earth.

And on top of all that is the promise that he would also be a blessing to others. Through Abram God built a personal relationship with humankind. In Abram God picked a family through which God would work as an example to all creation. The general relationship with all of creation didn't seem to be getting through to people. As humanity was spreading, so was the sinful desire to be in charge, to be gods. Creation got so corrupt that it had to be restarted with a flood. People got so ambitious they built a tower to try to reach the Lord.

In Abram God decided to work through a particular family to bless creation with a specific example of what grace and obedience, faithfulness and forgiveness, second and third and fourth and fifth chances look like. In Abram and through his human and flawed family, God decided to establish a pattern for personal relationships with humankind. God decided to show us all how God works in unexpected ways to bless us and the lives we live. It all started with a call, a disruption, a holy disruption. It all started with an invitation to go with God somewhere new - to a new place, to new people, to new experiences with God as his keeper.

Here in our church this week we're highlighting summer ministries - - camps, conferences, and missions away from town, and mission and worship opportunities here close to home. There are all sorts of opportunities for all ages, stages of faith, and abilities. Many of them, if not MOST of them are new to MOST of us. They may be outside of our comfort zones, but none of them are outside the reach of the Lord our God who keeps our going our and our coming in forever. They might be outside of our usual routine, but they aren't outside the watch of our Lord who neither slumbers nor sleeps. Some might even be a disruption to our plans and our ideas, but none are beyond the imagination of God who keeps and creates heaven and earth. They might just be holy disruptions.

I encourage you to look at the opportunities. Imagine what you might do different with your time, your energy, your faith this summer. Listen to where God might be calling you to step out in faith on a new journey to something completely new and completely different. Ultimately, that's what this is all about. Ultimately that's what the life of faith is all about. It's about listen to where God is calling us to go for God's own purpose. And when we trust and when we follow, we too can be blessed and a blessing to others.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

In the Wilderness

Matthew 4:1-11

After just a quick survey of fine art resources on the web, I think I can say that the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is one of the most depicted events in the life of Jesus. An art search engine I use found art pieces created from the 9th through the 21st century, many of them from the 16th and 17th centuries with a serene Jesus, rosy-cheeked even as he faced the tempter, a halo still glowing over his head.

However, this week we found a more recent depiction of the temptation that we just had to share with you. British artist Simon Smith was experiencing what he described as a wilderness period in his creative life. He says he felt like he "was on some sort of unending treadmill." His work was getting "stale" and "unadventurous." He decided to stop and pray, and what he prayed for was wilderness - in his words, "Time to stop, to be still and to breathe and to dream a bit, and to be refreshed."

One of the things that came out of that time was his own depiction of Jesus' wilderness time. The idea came from another artist, Stanley Spencer, who created 40 pictures, one for each day of Lent, of Christ in the Wilderness. Si Smith did the same thing, creating 40 images, in a way almost a cartoon strip, but somehow unexpectedly powerful. Open your eyes and your hearts to this understanding of Jesus' wilderness experience.

Forty days and forty nights without other human contact. Forty days and forty nights without food to nourish the body and mind. Forty days and forty nights of extreme temperatures and exposure to the elements. Forty days and forty nights for intense prayer and intimate exposure to God. The desert weighed on Jesus over the course of the 40 days and 40 nights. He weakened as his body and spirit were battered by what they experienced.

Our congregational prayer list tells me that desert times aren't impossible for us to imagine. Whether in our own lives or the lives of those we know and love, we have seen desert times. Times when the elements of disease, the economy, and tragedy have weighed heavy on our lives. We have seen times when spiritual food was scarce; some of us have even experienced times when physical food was hard to come by and stomachs growled nervously and hungrily. We have known loneliness brought on by the isolation of diminishing physical capacities, death in our families, or even the solitude of our singular experiences to which we imagine no one else can relate. Likewise, as the news reports, videos, and images continue to roll in from Japan, we can only imagine the kinds of hunger, isolation, emptiness, and devastation that people are living with after the natural disasters they have lived through.

The wilderness weighs us down. The wilderness piles up on our backs like heavy loads we are forced to carry for an unimaginable, unknown length of time. By day 30 or 31, maybe even earlier, our lips and spirits understandably dry out and start to crack. Our backs bend over. Our bodies get tired. We are famished.

And when we get tired and hungry, when we feel isolated and alone, when we are in spiritual and emotional deserts, parched, craving anything life-giving, we are tempted by any little thing at all that seems to offer a solution to the immediate problems. We look for the winning lottery ticket, the easy (but truthfully non-existent) quick fix. We are tempted to deny the wisdom of God, tempted to abandon our faith in God our creator, tempted to abandon God who we have been tricked to believe has abandoned us. We are tempted to trust other paths, other voices, instead of trusting God who formed us from the dust of the ground, who placed us in the garden of life, who provides out of abundance for our every need.

Jesus comes to the desert with the waters of his baptism still wet on on his forehead. He comes to the desert having just heard the very voice of God declare, "This is my Son," but the first words he hears aloud when he is weakened in body, mind, and probably even Spirit, is "If you are the Son of God." It would not be hard to fall prey to the tempter's trap. A desert experience doesn't FEEL like we dream the life of a son or daughter of God will feel.

The biggest temptation of all is not to magically make food appear, or call down angels to save him, or even to gather all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. The biggest temptation of all is really for Jesus to ignore what God has said is true, for us to deny what we have been told by our creator, to let the tempter steal our very identity as children of God, by tempting us to question the truth of God's love based on our experiences in the desert.

Until now I have assumed the tempter is someone outside of ourselves, but Si Smith's artwork shed some new light on the story for me. Did you notice the image of the tempter in his pictures? Did you notice anything about him? The traditional color of red for the devil was used, first in a lightly tinted apple hanging from an otherwise barren tree on day 24, alluding back to the fruit that the first man and woman were tempted to eat in the Garden of Eden. Next the color comes back in snake that crawls across days 27 and 28. Lastly, the color red is used for the image of the tempter because otherwise you couldn't distinguish him from Jesus himself.

The tempter is identical to the one being tempted. While it is our first impulse to identify with Jesus in the wilderness in the story, Si Smith points out in his art what a few others have pointed out in writing. If there is anyone with whom we should identify in this story, it is probably not the one being tempted; it is the one doing the tempting. The tempter in the desert questioned Jesus' very identity by questioning the way he exercised (or didn't exercise) his divine power. The tempter tried to steal Jesus' identity and turn him into the kind of God he expected instead of the kind of God he was sent to be.

Do we not try to tempt Jesus in these same ways all too often? Do we not question his identity based on our understanding of what he should be doing?

If you really are the Son of God, why do bad things still happen?
If you really are the Son of God, the object of my faith, why do my friends die?
If you really are the Son of God, why is disease taking over my body?
If you really are the Son of God, why is their suffering in this world?
If you really are the Son of God, why didn't you stop the earthquake, the tsunami?
If you really are the Son of God, why don't you just stop it all, stop the suffering, stop the pain? Why don't you stop the bickering and the fighting? Why don't you step in, intervene, step up and be the ruler we think you should be?

No, even more than we are the tempted, we are probably the tempters, trying to push and pull and bargain with Jesus until he fits our understanding of what it means to be the Son of God, what it means to be relevant, to be spectacular, to be powerful. (I've been told these three are Henri Nouwen's descriptions of the temptations) We try to make his life, his response to our lives, fit our understanding of his identity, instead of trusting what he heard at his baptism, and what we were told at our own.

Because ultimately, trusting who he is and understanding who are is all wrapped up together in our baptisms. The declaration of God as Jesus rose through the water is the declaration that is made true when the same element is dropped, poured, sprinkled, or drenched on our own heads. You are a child of God. You are a child of God. What the tempter tries to do more than anything else, what we try to do when we are in that role, is steal Jesus' identity. He tries to tell him what he thinks being the Son of God is really about. He tempts Jesus to forget who he is, because really who he is, is completely dependent upon WHOSE he is.

Jesus' survival in the wilderness isn't dependent on his own ability to turn stones into bread. He isn't tempted to find an easy way out, calling down angels to carry him away from a deadly situation. He doesn't claim for himself powers that would turn the favor of the world in his direction. Jesus survives the wilderness by remembering the very words of God. Jesus survives the wilderness by remembering to whom he belongs. He is the son of God.

We are the children of God. This is the good news for us as both the tempted and the tempter. This is the good news that both convicts and comforts us. We are not in charge. We are not the authors of God's identity, but we are the subject of God's creativity. We are the book God is writing. We are the children of God. We are beloved and cared for, nurtured and forgiven even in the deserts of our lives, even when we tempt Jesus to do it all our way.

We are not God; we are the children of God. Our way through the wildernesses we face is to remember this key to our identity, to not let it be stolen by others, to not let it be distorted by our own dreams of grandeur. Who we are is completely dependent upon whose we are. We are children of God.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Healing Dirt

"On the High Road between Sante Fe and Taos, New Mexico is the village of Chimayo, a pilgrimage site invested with the traditions of Hispanic Catholicism. Here, at a shrine dedicated to Jesus, Our Lord of Esquipulas, is located a small dry well that is reputed to have healing qualities. People from around the world visit this shrine to 'wash' themselves with this healing dirt and to carry some home to their families. In the small room by the well, as a thanksgiving offering they leave behind crutches and pictures of themselves healed." (from Imaging the Word, Vol. 3, United Church Press:1996, p.156)

I went to my first Ash Wednesday service when I was in college. If the Presbyterian Church in which I was nurtured as a child had an Ash Wednesday service, I was never aware of it. The only exposure I had to Ash Wednesday was the smudge of dust on the forehead of my junior high school gym teacher. A Catholic woman, she went faithfully to receive ashes even before school started each year, but I never really understood why. I never really asked either.

However, in college I was hungry for deeper spiritual experiences. In addition to attending worship and the campus ministry at my new Presbyterian church I sometimes went to the mid-week Catholic masses on campus. My first Ash Wednesday service was observed with this gathering of brothers and sisters in Christ. Interestingly enough the priest who was pained by his inability to serve me the elements of the sacrament each week was now allowed to impose the ashes of repentance on my forehead. When we talked later we discovered it was as awkward for him as it was for me.

As a first time recipient of ashes I was overwhelmed with emotions and questions about what was happening. I questioned the meaning of the ashes, a simultaneous sign of sin and death, but also the very earth out of which we were created. I struggled with such a public act of personal repentance. I was used to a corporate prayer of confession and even my own private confessions, but the idea of carrying a sign of my private confession out in public was difficult to understand. I remember being struck as I heard the words that announced my mortality, "From dust you have come and to dust you shall return." I threw my heart and soul and body into the prayers we offered in that service as a way of trying to understand and experience the totality of of it, but it was difficult. It was challenging. It forced me to ponder issues of my own faith and life that I don't often ponder willingly.

Ash Wednesday is the entrance into the season of Lent, the forty days (not counting Sundays) of preparation for Easter, the celebration of the resurrection and new life it brings. The thing about new life is that it's hard, if not downright impossible, to experience it fully without experiencing death, real or symbolic. Celebrating Jesus having risen from the grave feels as empty as the tomb if we don't take time to dwell in the grave with him, if we don't spend time contemplating our own imperfection that causes pain and suffering and separation from God. Ash Wednesday is the opportunity to do just that, to contemplate and confession our sinfulness that causes rifts in our relationships with God and other people. Ash Wednesday is the opportunity to be reminded that our life on this earth is finite. It has a beginning, and it will have an end. God created humankind out of the dirt of the earth and one way or another we will return to the earth.

But at the same time Ash Wednesday, as a realization and recognition of our mortality and sinfulness, is also a place of healing. The first step toward receiving and rejoicing in the new life of resurrection is the step in which we realize that we can't get there on our own. The first step on the journey to the celebration of Easter is a reminder that we NEED Easter not because the songs we sing bring us joy, not because it is a sign of spring, not because the trumpets and choir give our souls lift after a long winter. The first step on the journey to the celebration of Easter is a reminder that we NEED Easter because we need the truths it makes clear. We need the forgiveness of sins. We need new life in Jesus.

In this way the ashes we receive are healing. They serve to heal us of our misconception that we can right our wrongs ourselves. They serve to heal us of our misunderstanding that if we just work hard enough we can save ourselves and others. They serve to heal us of our skewed vision that life without God is good enough.

Ash Wednesday may be an uncomfortable and foreign observance, but in our discomfort we are put in touch with the very one who can bring us comfort and solace and grace. Come and be challenged. Come and be convicted. Come and experience the depths of God's grace.