Tag Archives: Ash Wednesday

Prepare Ye The Way of the Lord

The Gospel of Mark tells the story of Jesus’ life, ministry, and death. It begins in the middle of the story, and ends before it’s over.

Mark begins John baptizing people in the Jordan River. There’s no wise men, no manger or shepherds. There’s no virgin Mary or stunned Joseph. There’s no Christmas at all. There’s just John, the wild and wooly prophet telling people to change their lives and minds, and look forward to the coming one. Jesus shows up pretty quickly, and is baptized. As he comes out of the water, Jesus hears a voice from the heavens, “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

Thus marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Thus marks the beginning of the musical Godspell. Thus marks our beginning of Lent, and our photo journal. For the next few weeks I will be writing and reflecting on different themes, songs, and stories that are found in Godspell. After a prologue, Godspell begins with John the Baptist blowing the shofar and calling the people to baptism. In our production, the children are the first ones up. Then they bring the adults with them to the stage. We sing joyfully, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,” until Jesus comes to be baptized as well. It is the start of the musical. More importantly, it is the start of our journey. We are invited this week to take pictures of things that makes us think of “Prepare the Way,” and words like begin, embark, baptize, water, and Spirit. Some began the journey by sharing pictures, all of which you can see on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter using the hashtag #tryLENT. These are some that were shared on various social media:

Announce

Announce

Begin

Begin

Start

Start

Water

Water

The Jordan River

The Jordan River

 

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. It begins with these words: “From dust were you formed, and to dust you will return. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” These were the words I used as I applied ashes to the foreheads and hands of those that came forward on Ash Wednesday. As the start of Lent, Ash Wednesday is a chance to take the sign of the cross in ash, and begin the journey toward Easter. We begin the season of Lent with reminder of our own mortality, a call to repentance, and a call to faith.

Why then, on the first Sunday of Lent do we share the story of Jesus being baptized? Why the sudden shift from Death, mortality, and repentance to baptism? Because it really isn’t that much of a shift. The words of the imposition of ashes are a poignant reminder, and an apt starting point for the journey of Lent.

“From dust you were formed and to dust you will return.” This has not only a theological truth rooted in the second creation story as found in Genesis 2. It has a scientific truth in our understanding of the cosmos. Carl Sagan is famously quoted as saying, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” All of this is to say that we are mortal. The human body was made as a fragile vessel.

When we take on the ash of the cross we are reminded of the simple fact that we will die. The truth of death is one of the only universals of life. It is something we all share. Yet it it is a truth we seldom want to acknowledge. It is good, every now and then, to be reminded of our own mortality. Not to dwell in morbidity or to scare people into believing. Instead, I like to remind myself and others of our mortality so as to savor every breath. Yes, we were formed from dust and to dust we will return. But in between, we are fill with breath. We are filled with life. We are filled with spirit.

On Ash Wednesday my daughter came forward to receive ashes. I placed my finger on her forehead, rubbed some dirt on her and said, “From dust you were formed, and to dust you will return.” I looked into her deep brown eyes and I could scarcely get the words out. It was too much. It was the truth, but in that moment it felt like too much truth. Somehow I got the words out. I was thankful that this was not the end of the imposition. I had more words to speak. Through my tears, I put my hand on her shoulder and continued, “Repent, and believe in the good news.”

And thus we get back to the beginning. “Repent and believe in the good news,” was the heart of John’s message while he was baptizing. It was Jesus’ first message after coming back from the wilderness. In Mark 1:16, Jesus says, “Now is the time! Here comes the God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust the good news” (Common English Bible). This translation gives us the meaning for repent. For too many teachers and preachers repentance has to do with shame and guilt. Repentance though, is not about shame. It is about orienting. It is not about looking back, it is about looking ahead. It acknowledges that we have fallen short, but repentance does not allow us dwell on sin. When we repent, we turn. At the beginning of Lent, and at the beginning of this journey, we are invited to repent.

Turn away from those things that distract us from God. Turn away from the things that pull us away from life. Turn away from the things that get in the way of loving God and loving others. Turn toward forgiveness and reconciliation. Turn toward justice, healing, and peace. Turn toward grace. Repent, and believe the good news. And what is that good news? It goes back to Jesus being baptized. When he got out of the water, there was a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” (Mark 1:11, Common English Bible).

The ashes are a reminder of our mortality. They are reminder that we must turn away from the things that keep us from life and toward the things of God. And they are reminder of this good news that we may all share. “You are God’s son. You are God’s daughter, whom God dearly loves. In you God finds happiness.” To believe this statement is as true of me as it is of Jesus is not to believe I am the messiah. It is to understand that God’s love is so full, so abundant, so steadfast, that even I am God’s son. I was formed from dust, given the breath of life, and offered the water of baptism. I am God’s son, adopted into God’s family not because I earned my way to such a distinction, but only by the grace of God.

This is good news. This is truly remarkable news. This is amazing news. It is the kind of news I want to share. It is the kind of news that makes me want to sing. “Prepare the way of the Lord. Repent, and believe in the good news. Prepare the way for a journey with Christ.”


 From February 25-March 3 we’re invited to reflect on “Day by Day.” This song in the musical comes in a time when the community coming together. The song includes the beautiful prayer “See thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly.” So the words we should look for are things like follow, grow, see, community, friendship. Please share pictures using #tryLENT


 

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If you’re in the Quad Cities on Palm Sunday, check out Godspell at Two Rivers United Methodist Church

 

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#TRYLent Photo journey through Lent

TRYLent revisedHere’s something we’re going to try at our church, Two Rivers United Methodist Church. From February 16-April 4 everyone will be encouraged to participate in this photo journey. Each week we will have a different theme. Pictures should be marked with the hashtag #TRYLent. TRY stands for Two Rivers Youth. Lent is the time of year when we participate in repentance, preparation, and reflection as we move toward Easter. I love the season of Lent because it is a time to encourage new practices that can bring us closer to God. I don’t focus my energy on “giving something up for Lent.” Last year I wrote about giving up, and the need to give up my own sense of control. I’ve also done a lot in the past to encourage building relationships in Lent by offering the 40 Notes in 40 Days exercise. I’ve also encouraged people to Take something up for Lent.

I’ve participated in photo journeys before. I usually don’t make it more than about a week. That’s why this isn’t a daily journal. Instead, it’s a weekly one. Each week corresponds with the theme of my sermon on the coming Sunday in Lent. I will be preaching in Lent using the songs of Godspell as my guide. I’m going to work to include a blog about each week as well. Here’s the schedule for my sermon series. The posting schedule is Wednesday to Wednesday, so pictures will be posted leading up to the Sunday, and for a few days after. Then shift to the new theme. The exception to that is the week that includes Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Here’s the schedule:

Feb 18-24 — Prepare the Way.  Themes for the week: Preparation, Baptism, Water, Holy Spirit. The text will be Mark 1:4-13, the baptism of Jesus.

Feb 25-Mar 4 — Day by Day. Themes for the week: Community, Fellowship, Growth, See more clearly, Love more dearly, Follow more nearly. The text will be Mark 18:21-35, the parable of the unforgiving servant.

Mar 5-Mar 11 — By My Side. Themes for the week: Pebble in your shoe, Conflict, Tension, Determination, Courage. The text will be John John 8:1-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery.

Mar 12-Mar 18 — On the Willows. Themes for the week: Sadness, Depression, Lamentation, Betrayal, Judas. The texts will be Psalm 137 and Matthew 26:14-16, which is the moment Judas agrees to betray Jesus.

Mar 19-25 — All Good Gifts. Themes for the week: Thankful, Seed, Harvest, Gifts. The text will be Matthew 13, the parable of the sower.

Mar 26-April 4– We Beseech Thee. Themes for the week: Palms, Crucifixion, Sorrow, Service, Supper, Bread Broken, Washed Feet. The text will be Mark 11:1-11, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and Palm Sunday.

Apr 5-Apr 8 — Beautiful City. Themes for the week: Easter, Resurrection, Eternity, Empty Tomb, Wonder. The text will be Mark 16:1-8, the women find the empty tomb.

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I give up

We still get a daily newspaper, and sometimes the only page I touch in the whole thing is the crossword.  I love doing crossword puzzles, especially if they’re not too hard. I can’t even touch the Sunday New York Times crossword.

I like the one in our newspaper because on most days I can fill most of it up.  My favorite part of doing the crossword is when I tackle one big blank part of the puzzle at once after feeling blocked.  In one flash of brilliance the dam is lifted, and a tidal wave of right answers comes pouring out.  Whole sections of the puzzle that were once blocked can quickly come alive once I remember that an artichoke is an edible flower, and that acme is a four-letter word for peak.   Eventually though, I hit another block.

I seldom finish the whole thing.  It seems like there is always some intersection of an obscure town in India and the first name of an actress from the thirties that I just can’t figure out.  I try as hard as I can to finish the whole thing, but almost inevitably, I have to seek help.  But first I have to declare to myself, “I give up.”

“I give up” are three powerful words.  On Ash Wednesday, Christians of many stripes feel compelled to give something up.  Most people give up some vice or bad habit.  The practice of self-denial is an ancient spiritual discipline.  Others, and myself in the past, have poo-poohed the idea giving up of things for Lent.  Many writers have warned against the dangers of going through the motions during Lent, or giving up something superficial that won’t really get to the heart of the matter.

While I agree that the sacrifice that the Lord requires is not superficial, I’m giving up judging others’ discipline.  If you want to give up chocolate, who I am to tell you that you shouldn’t do that?  I know what the Lord requires of me.  Nowhere in mercy, justice, and walking humbly with God does it include commenting on your spiritual discipline.

I haven’t decided if I am going to fast for Lent.  In the past I’ve given up chocolate.  I’ve also done daylight food fasts.  For a couple years in a row I didn’t eat any solid foods between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.  Every year I contemplate doing that again, but haven’t attempted it in years.  Last year I tried to write a note to someone for every day of Lent.  I wish I could tell you I actually wrote 40 notes in 40 days.  I can tell you though, that it was a very rewarding experience.

This year I feel ready to give up.  Giving up is an easy thing to do sometimes.

I feel weary, and I don’t think I’m alone.  I feel weary of a world torn by violence in Central Africa, Syria and Venezuela.  I feel weary of impending war in Ukraine.  I feel weary of divisive politics.  I feel weary of debating.  I feel weary of a long and brutal winter that just won’t relent.  I feel weary of social media, being bombarded every day by this post, this article, this meme.  I feel weary of my to-do list, which seems to be growing faster than I can check things off.  I feel weary of reacting harshly at my daughters when they don’t deserve my ire.  I feel weary of the  laundry pile in my basement, the paper pile on my desk, and the snow piles on the street.  Pile after pile seem to come in wave after wave.

And now Lent comes and I’m supposed to give something up, and I can’t pick just one thing.  So I give up.

Pass me the ashes, I give up.

I give up my plan.

I give up my power.

I give up my ability to affect change.

I rub ashes on my head, and mark myself “given up.”  Weary. Tired. Defeated.

I remember that out of dust I was formed. To dust I will return.

I give up.  I confess my failures. I examine my shortcomings.  I reflect on the ways that I cannot do it all.  I resign myself to God’s will, not my own.  I remember that I will die, and pain and suffering will remain, but I will have lived.  I will live without the need to be right every time.  I will live without the need to follow my plan, without the need to check every box, without the need to fix everything.  Out of dust I was formed, and to dust I will return, but in between I am going live.

I am going to live.

I fall on my knees and cry out to God, “I give up.”  God smiles, embraces me and says, “Finally.  Now, allow me…”

And suddenly the dam is lifted, and a tidal wave of grace comes pouring out.

The fast I choose is justice, mercy, and kindness.  Not because my actions will solve the world’s problems, but simply because God is.  God is justice.  God is mercy. God is kindness. God is love.  This same God took a pile of dust and breathed life into me, so how else can I live?

I can’t solve the world’s problems.  I can barely finish my laundry.  These ashes are a reminder of my own mortality.  These ashes are a reminder of my own shortcomings.  These ashes are a reminder that God took ashes and formed something that I could never form.  God provides answers I could never know.  God provides paths I could never find.

I give up. I get up with God, and I feel fine.

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40 Notes in 40 Days

40notes40days2014Rethink Church has come up with a great Lenten discipline focusing on taking pictures of different themes.  It looks like a great spiritual discipline, and I’m looking forward to seeing the creativity that gets shared in Pinterest and other sites.  A week ago, I decided that one of my Lenten disciplines would be to write 40 notes to people in 40 days.  Inspired by Rethink Church’s effort, I created my own list.  Below is a list of 40 different people to write a note to.

There are no real rules to this idea.  This is just a way to write a note to 40 different people, and pray for them in the process.  I’ll leave the content of the note up to you.  Only share what you feel comfortable sharing with others.  For example, you don’t have to tell someone that you’re writing them a note to fill in their “might be fearful” slot, and you don’t have to offer forgiveness to the person on March 27.  Any note could be as simple as saying, “During the course of my prayers today, you came to mind.  I hope you are doing well.”

And if any readers feel compelled to take this idea, and create a better-looking picture to share, I wouldn’t mind (just please send it to me before you share it).

If you try it, and want to share experiences on twitter, use #40Notes40Days or #FatPastor.  Also, you can go to the facebook page and share on the wall.

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Thank you to two readers who took the idea, and redesigned it for me. I think either of these look a lot nicer than the one I created a couple of years ago.

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Take up something for Lent

I’ve been reading a lot on facebook today about people giving something up for Lent.  Several have said their FB “goodbye,” because they will be giving up facebook.  Thousands (millions?) will be giving up chocolate, french fries, cofee, swearing, late-night snacks, food during the day, or somesuch other thing.

They will do it in the name of fasting.  The idea of giving up something for Lent has taken on a certain cultural cache.  It is a strange phenomon in our culture of overindulgence.  On the surface, I see it as a good thing.  Self-denial, even of menial or luxuriant things, is a much overlooked virtue.  So I applaud all of those that, in the name of God or their faith, are trying to give up something for Lent.

I just want to add a word of caution.  Don’t let your giving something up for Lent replace an actual relationship with the living God.  And don’t let your sense of piety over giving up something for Lent keep you from taking a hard look at what God really wants us to be doing.

This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed,
cancel debts.
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry,
inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
being available to your own families.  (Isaiah 58:6-7, The Message)

Just be careful.  It is great to do something for God.  It is great to remember the sacrifice that Christ made for us.  Just do it for the right reasons.  Don’t get caught up in the cultural trend of giving something up without also trying to take something up.  We give things up to make room to take things up.  Give up something that is getting in the way of your relationship with God.  Give something up that is getting in the way of the Kingdom.

Give up chocolate.  Give up chocolate that is made on the backs of the working poor.  Give up choclate that enslaves children and puts them in dangerous working conditions. Give up Hershey.  And take up Fair-Trade chocolate.

Give up facebook.  And take up a pen and piece of paper and a stamp, and write a note to a teacher, a friend, a loved one, someone sick, or someone lonely.

Give up TV.  And take up conversations.  Take up stronger relationships.  Take up the Bible.  Take up prayer.

Give up oppression.  Give up resentment.  Give up fear.  And take up justice.  Take up reconciliation.  Take up love.

Mark your forehead with ashes – not to take up shame and guilt.  Mark your forehead with ashes – and take up your inheritance as a child of God.  Take up your task to do the work of Christ.  Mark the start of your journey to the cross, so that when you get to Easter, you can look back and know that this Lent, you did something with God.  Then sing “Hallelujah, The Kingdom has come.”

If you liked this post, you might find the podcast “Pulpit Fiction” interesting.  Go to the Pulpit Fiction homepage for commentaries on the Biblical text throughout Lent – and every week of the year.

40 Notes in 40 Days – An old-fashioned exercise for a digital age.

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