Saturday, February 28, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Day 10

My morning devotional directed me toward two of the lectionary readings for tomorrow, so I'll post about those today, rather than about the book of Acts, just for something a little bit different!

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
It's interesting that the lectionary skips the verses here that focus on circumcision. Doing so allows the focus to be more on some other aspects of Abraham's encounter with God, I guess.

So God shows up here--El Shaddai, as he identifies himself--and seems to command Abram to follow him. "Walk with me and be trustworthy," God says. It might help us to know that this is not Abram's first encounter with God, and it's not without reason that God encourages Abram to do things honestly. (Check out the preceding 4 or 5 chapters to see what Abram's been up to since God first told him to head out from the place he'd always known. Not everything Abram did was on the up and up, so much...) But it is interesting that after quite a few years now--24 or so?--Abram's been on the go, trying to figure out what God meant when God promised to make many nations out of him. No matter what else Abram may have tried, the fact remains that he and Sarai still have no kids...and let's be honest, it's not looking very good for them. So God shows up. Maybe Abram needed the reminder of the covenant God had made with him so many years ago. Maybe Abram needed some encouragement to keep on going. Maybe Abram needed a kick in the pants. After all, he had listened to Sarai and had a kid with Sarai's slave girl, and that didn't end up working out so well. We can imagine that God has reason to be hesitant about how things are going to work out with this one!

But Abram remains faithful, scripture tells us. In fact, Paul expands on this quite a lot in the letter to the Romans. Romans 4:13-25 is the epistle reading for tomorrow, so let's get some of that in here, too:
18 When it was beyond hope, he had faith in the hope that he would become the father of many nations, in keeping with the promise God spoke to him: That’s how many descendants you will have.[a] 19 Without losing faith, Abraham, who was nearly 100 years old, took into account his own body, which was as good as dead, and Sarah’s womb, which was dead. 20 He didn’t hesitate with a lack of faith in God’s promise, but he grew strong in faith and gave glory to God. 21 He was fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised. 22 Therefore, it was credited to him as righteousness.

Now, I don't know what version of Genesis Paul is reading, but I gotta say that I think Abram doesn't always come off as quite so faithful. I mean, he questions God sometimes--"How are you going to keep your promise, when I don't even have one son, God??" which isn't necessarily unfaithful, but he also tries to hurry up God's plan by having this child with Hagar--why would he think that would be the solution?! We might want to pick on him a bit, but I think that doing that might ultimately just make us more comfortable with the ways we lack faith and faithfulness, at times, ourselves. So, I'll take it easy on Abram today. His faith, even with a few mistakes, is still pretty impressive. And he got the bonus of hearing God make promises, first-hand. That's pretty cool!

One other part of this passage seems noteworthy at the moment--there's much more that could be said, of course--and that is the name change that happens here. Abram becomes Abraham, and our Bibles tell us that means something significant. Sarai becomes Sarah, which nobody can really figure out--it doesn't really seem to mean anything different. No matter how meaningful or not it was meant to be, though, we often read it as a new beginning and a shift in identity, as God's promises are being fulfilled in these two elders' lives. Maybe it's good to spend some time considering how my identity changes in noticeable ways, as God's promises are revealed in and around me. Hmm...

Friday, February 27, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Day 9

Acts has so many wonderful stories! Today's are some of my favorites, so this may be a little bit long.

Acts 16:6-10--Vision of the Macedonian
As cool as reading about the Holy Spirit is, it seems weird that the Spirit wouldn't let them speak or visit some places, and it makes me wonder how much I'm missing the Holy Spirit in my own life and ministry. How many of us practice being truly aware of the Spirit's presence and leading in our lives? How would our discipleship look different, if we were more open to how the Spirit is at work? The stories of the early church ask us these questions.

Verse 10 says "we prepared to leave," which is a bit of a surprise, and maybe even kind of startling. All of a sudden, this story gets a little more real to us because it's written in first-person--we're reading this story from a real person's perspective. Someone was actually writing about his own experience. Who is it? It doesn't tell us. Interesting!

Acts 16:11-15--Lydia's conversion
I have to admit that the place names that are mentioned in Paul's journeys don't always mean much to me. I should remember the geography of the New Testament better, but without reviewing that or looking at a map while I'm reading, I sometimes feel like I'm drowning in place names that are foreign to me, or names that I've heard before but still don't remember where they are.

Anyway, they arrive here in Philippi, and they go down to the river to pray! Lydia sounds like good people, as they say, and I appreciate her role in starting one of the first churches. (Maybe she wasn't a clergywoman, but hey, she was certainly a leader.) I wonder if there was anything unusual about these foreign men sitting down to talk with the local women. It reminds me a little bit of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.

I'm surprised that after Paul teaches and preaches and Lydia is converted--"the Lord enabled her to embrace Paul's message"--she says to him, according to the Common English Bible, "Now that you have decided that I am a believer in the Lord..." Other versions sound a little bit different, and maybe it means something like, "Stay with me if you judge me faithful..." Still, it's an interesting way to phrase things.

Acts 16:16-40--Paul and Silas in Prison
This is such a fantastic story!!My study Bible notes that the servant girl's spirit (v.10) is sometimes referred to as a "python spirit," which connects her with the myth of the oracle of Delphi. I did not know that! Of course, I also don't remember the whole myth, but I do remember enough to know that the oracle at Delphi was something important.

As far as the story about Paul and Silas goes, this is such a meaningful story for Christians. I can think of half a dozen songs that refer to it, in one way or another. There's so much amazing Spirit activity here. Paul and Silas were severely beaten and put in high security, and they sat there singing and praying all night, and the other prisoners listened to them. It just sounds plumb crazy! And now, I have to admit that my study Bible suggests something that I have never really concluded before, about Paul and Silas' singing and praying: God answers their prayers. Duh! God answers their prayers--that's why they get out of jail! Duh!

The story of the jailer's conversion brings us to a lot of interesting questions, too. His act of believing somehow brings salvation to his whole household, verse 31 tells us, yet we are so often quick to make faith such an individual endeavor. What does this story really teach us about that? It's not that it was magic--everyone else in the house was taught, and we don't know what they did later in life--but it's that the jailer's act wasn't just done for himself.

The end of this story is a little bit funny. I guess the beginning was, too--Paul got annoyed and just cast out the girl's spirit. When the local authorities find out that Paul and Silas are Roman citizens, they realize they've kind of made a big mistake. Maybe the local officials should make decisions on something other than what the crowd yells for them to do!

I really like this story! If you haven't read it recently (or ever), take time to read it today. Know that you are never guaranteed an easy faith, but you are guaranteed that the same crazy Spirit that cracked Paul and Silas out of the depths of a local jail is with you, no matter where you are!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Day 8

There was a scary moment when I couldn't get my computer to turn on, and then how would I post on my blog for the rest of Lent?? But I got it to work again, so here's today's post.

Acts 15:22-35--Letter to the Gentile Believers
The church in Jerusalem writes a letter to the gentile churches, telling them what was decided about circumcision and the laws, and it gives the bare bones of what is expected, in terms of conduct from all believers. This still seems like a better way to handle things than we usually do in churches today, but I guess we still don't really know how people received it and how many people in Jerusalem didn't like the decision. The book of Acts is not an exhaustive account, so I probably shouldn't try to impose on it more than it tells me about the details of what really went on in the early church. Nonetheless, it seems like Acts gives us a good model for how to handle disputes in the church.

I think it's really interesting that Judas and Silas, who were sent with Paul, were also prophets. "They said many things that encouraged and strengthened the brothers and sisters." This doesn't seem like what prophets normally do, at least as we read them in the Old Testament. I'm curious about that title "prophet." (My study Bible doesn't explain it further, though.)

Acts 15:36-41--Paul and Barnabas Part Company
It's sad that Paul and Barnabas parted ways. This is one of few serious conflicts among believers that doesn't get resolved in Acts, and it's ironic that it happens right after the Jerusalem council comes to consensus about something and a dispute is resolved. You can see Paul's point in not wanting to have John Mark with them again, after he left them before, but was it worth parting ways over it? I guess it worked out well enough. We don't know much about Barnabas after this, so what Paul did was at least more written about than whatever Barnabas and John Mark ended up doing.

Acts 16:1-5--Paul adds Timothy
More irony here, as Paul circumcises Timothy, right after all gentiles are told they don't have to be circumcised. My study Bible explains that Paul did it because Timothy's mother was Jewish, so he didn't want to offend other Jews by not having Timothy properly circumcised. Still, I'm sure it wasn't fun for poor Timothy!

...And then all the churches continued to grow...sounds great! What will happen next??

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Day 7

Acts 14:21-28--Paul and Barnabas Return to Antioch
So, Paul and Barnabas return to their last two stops, after making converts somewhere else. These are the same two places where they've been harassed and kicked out by Jewish leaders. How dumb were they, part of me wants to ask! But I guess the history of the church is a witness to persistence, not stupidity, after all. At least they let people know what they were in for: they set up churches at these places and they told the people that there would be trials and hardships. It's a wonder any of them stuck around! How many of us would stick around when we actually believe that kind of hardship will come because of our faith? I mean, in other countries, people are still persecuted for their faith every day, but not so much here in America. So, would we stay if we faced what these early Christians and so many Christians today face? That's hard to say. I guess we give the Holy Spirit credit for the fact that many of those early Christians did stick around.

Acts 15:1-21--The Jerusalem Council
So, then Paul and Barnabas had to go back to Jerusalem, but they stopped at all the churches along the way and reported all the great things that were going on. I would imagine that made the trip to Jerusalem better, even as they knew they were going to face the council and it could get pretty contentious. Was it like a trip to General Conference? I imagine those can be pretty unenjoyable...

It's interesting that Paul and Peter were apparently in agreement on the topic of circumcision (unless I'm reading this wrong, which is possible...). Peter's testimony about the issue seems pretty reasonable, and James actually agrees with it. This would be a nice way to handle problems in the church. The church changed on its position on something, and everyone survived and the church grew. Imagine that!

Daily Lenten Post, Day 5

Well, when you're traveling, you don't always get everything done that you need to do and you lose some things along the, here's Monday's scripture reflection, after I found my notes again...

Acts 13:13-52--Paul and Barnabas in Pisidian Antioch
Paul and Barnabas show up in the synagogue, and they get invited to preach. I wondered if that was because they were guests or because they came from the church in Jerusalem. Paul's preaching is similar to Peter's and Stephen's, but a bit briefer, and I wonder why they started by summarizing Israel's history. Did that prove that they were good Jews? Did it give them some other kind of credibility, before they switched into preaching about Jesus? I wonder.

I also wonder if Paul, because of his Roman citizenship and his Jewish ancestry, experienced any kind of double consciousness, knowing that he sort of embodied the intersection of  two so different cultures/races, or whatever. I mean, as a person of privilege, he certainly wouldn't have experienced it in the same sense that the concept came about through the African American experience, of course...

Anyway, lots of people listened to Paul, but the Jewish leaders got mad, so Paul and Barnabas moved on to teaching the gentiles. I know that's the way Paul ended up doing things most of the time, but I wonder how he felt about that. Wouldn't that be terribly disheartening, the fourth, or fifth, or fifteenth time it happened? Maybe he just knew that was the way it had to go, and he had reconciled himself to it.

Verse 46 is quite an interesting verse--"Everyone who was appointed for eternal life believed." I guess we could make a case for predestination, then...

Then this story ends with them getting kicked out of the town, but the Holy Spirit still makes them feel happy with their situation. How many of us have experienced that? Wiping the dust off and moving on isn't always fun, but it's not always horrible, either...

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Day 6

I can't find the notes I made for yesterday's post, so that will have to wait until some other time. Here's what I looked at this morning, though. My morning devotional suggested the reading from Romans, but I couldn't pass up saying a little bit about my reading from Acts, too--two very different scripture readings, but both very interesting. I'd like to say more, but it's late...

Romans 8:31-39
This passage is like a verbal fist pump for all of us followers of Christ! What can really separate us from the love of Christ? Absolutely nothing--nothing we can think of or even do actually separates us, even though we're not very well convinced of that sometimes. In verse 18, Paul writes that he is convinced of this. This is, of course, a letter from Paul to people he has never met, but he still had confidence for them of this belief he held so strongly, that nothing can separate us from God. I don't know how to say it any better than Paul did--this is such an uplifting passage of scripture. Nothing can separate us from God--nothing. How often do we need to be reminded of that?

Acts 14:1-20--Paul and Barnabas' first journey continues
This is such a crazy story! God is at work, doing amazing things, and the people go nuts over it. The locals don't know what else to do, so they want to worship Paul and Barnabas. I wonder how frustrated and anxious that made them. But then, just as they're fending off being worshiped as gods, the Jews from their last two stops show up and stone them. Say what?! That would be enough to make a person feel bipolar, I think! I wonder how many of us would have survived what Paul went through...

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, First Sunday in Lent

Even though Sundays don't count in the 40 days of Lent (that's why it's the First Sunday IN Lent, not the First Sunday OF Lent), I'll share some thoughts on this morning's scripture reading, anyway...

Acts 13:1-12--Paul and Barnabas's First Journey (Part I)
Verse 2 tells us that the Spirit speaks directly and chooses Barnabas and Saul--how cool is that?! And then in verse 3, they are only sent out after the disciples fast, pray, and lay hands on them. We think those things don't matter as much as action, but they must have mattered to the early church, so why not to us, too?

I think this passage gets a little confusing when people start having two different names. My study Bible has a box explaining the Saul/Paul thing, but I didn't get to it yet. (Sunday morning's time is just a wee bit limited...)

Reading about a false prophet in the book of Acts is kind of surprising. I think of false prophets as sort of Old Testament-y and out-of-place by the time we get past Jesus, but I guess that's only my own idea. Here's one, right here in Acts. How interesting!

I wonder what it was like to see the apostles performing miracles and signs, as well as magicians doing their things. Did they seem like the same thing? I imagine it was difficult to tell the difference between magic and miracles and the Holy Spirit sometimes, but maybe I'm wrong. There must have been something different enough, or maybe it was just the teaching of the apostles and not their signs, because the governor believed. That's a great witness to the work of the Spirit and the apostles.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Day 4

Acts 12: Herod imprisons Peter

So, we all know anyone named Herod is not a great guy, but in verse 3, it tells us that it pleased the Jews (read: Jewish leaders who opposed the followers of Jesus--not all Jews, of course) when Herod killed James, so he arrested Peter. That's kind of messed up, if you ask me. But then he has a whole bunch of soldiers stationed to guard Peter around the clock. That is really impressive! What kind of threat was it that Peter posed again??

Anyway, Acts is full of so many really cool stories. My study Bible notes that when the angel comes to get Peter and tells him to hurry up (verse 7-8), those are the same words (or similar words) that God spoke to the Egyptians at the Passover--to hurry up and get ready, that there wasn't much time. I had never known that before (or I forgot it--that's always possible...), and that's a really interesting note, as this happens during the festival of Passover.

I'm glad we learn in this story that Peter didn't believe it was really happening until the angel left and he was actually out of prison in the city. Then, the people at Mary's house don't believe Rhoda (incidentally, the only named female servant in Luke-Acts) that Peter is at the gate--after she got so excited that she left him standing outside! It's comical, but it seems real. So often, when I read about how great things were in the early church--everybody got along and shared all their stuff and lots of people joined--it makes it kind of difficult to relate. Did they really all get along that well?? But here, I can relate to being skeptical, to being so surprised as to leave Peter outside. I can understand that!

Verse 15 tells us that the people told Rhoda it couldn't be Peter, it must be his angel. My Common English Bible translates it as "guardian angel," which I thought was interesting. I looked up the word in Greek, and it's just the same word that means angel or messenger, but I guess it's possible that it could also mean guardian angel. I'll have to look into this more...

Finally, even though I was down on the Jews earlier, for being pleased that Herod killed James, I can't help but find Herod's death pretty interesting. He was such a jerk to everyone, killing people right and left, and doing all kinds of bad stuff, so it's pretty interesting that he dies in such a way. My study Bible says this account is fairly similar to the historian Josephus's account of Herod's death, but I wonder if Luke doesn't take some liberties here, just to make a point about ruthless rulers and giving credit to God.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Day 3

This morning, I read 1 Peter 3:18-22, which is one of the lectionary readings for this Sunday, and my morning devotional suggested reading and reflecting on it. I also read from Acts, but this reading from 1 Peter really struck me. Because it is short, I will post it in its entirety here, from the Common English Bible:

18 Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous. He did this in order to bring you into the presence of God. Christ was put to death as a human, but made alive by the Spirit. 19 And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison. 20 In the past, these spirits were disobedient—when God patiently waited during the time of Noah. Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water. 21 Baptism is like that. It saves you now—not because it removes dirt from your body but because it is the mark of a good conscience toward God. Your salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,22 who is at God’s right side. Now that he has gone into heaven, he rules over all angels, authorities, and powers.

I'll just jot a few of the thoughts I had on this passage. I may be changing some plans and preaching on it soon. Oh, and I should also say that I haven't done any close study of what comes before and after these verses, which is important, too. I'll have to do some more work here! But here are my initial thoughts today:

  • This must be one of the passages that has been interpreted to say that Christ descended to the dead, which I think is a pretty cool idea, but many of us leave that line out of the Apostles' Creed. This passage gives a narrative about the "spirits in prison," that is also pretty telling: that they were disobedient, but then Christ came and preached to them. It's interesting that the narrative about Noah goes straight into a discussion of baptism, not into detail about what happened when Jesus preached to these spirits. Do we assume that they received baptism, or salvation, or something else? (Perhaps I should look into this more--I haven't studied 1 Peter very closely, that I can recall.)
  • This passage also gives a very specific understanding of baptism, and I see how people come to strikingly different conclusions about the nature of baptism, from verse 21, specifically. It makes me think of the time that I was trying to explain the practice of infant baptism to people who were familiar with believer's baptism, and the question was posed to me, "So, do you believe that all of those babies who are baptized are saved?" Of course, the answer to that question is way more complicated than I'll go into here, but I understand from this verse better than I have before, where that question comes from.
  • So, the first part of verse 21 kind of muddies some waters, but oh, the second part of that verse--"Your salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ..."--how wonderful! So often, we focus on the cross and the crucifixion, to the detriment of celebrating the resurrection. I've heard of Easter Sunday services that are more about the cross than about the empty tomb, and it makes me so sad. "Your salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ..." Yay! Both of them--the crucifixion and the resurrection--matter to our salvation. What would it look like if we preached and sang and talked as if both events matter to us? Would that change what people think of Christianity? Maybe...maybe not...what do you think?

What I'm Doing for Lent

I decided that for Lent, I want to put more thought and reflection into my daily scripture reading. The way I'm going to do this is to post here each day (or most days, at least), with some thoughts on whatever I've read that day. I'm reading through Acts during my morning quiet time right now, so I'm just starting right where I've been, which is with Acts 10. Feel free to comment (the comments feature should be turned on...) and let me know what you think, too.

Acts 10:1-48--Peter and Cornelius
It's so interesting that Peter is staying with Simon the tanner, who would have been considered ritually unclean by Jews, according to my study Bible. Why was Peter staying there before he had a vision from the Spirit that convinced him that God shows no partiality?

Anyway, I love this story! One of the important themes of the book of Acts is the work of the Spirit, and this story is right there at the top of the list, showing how the Spirit is mad busy, getting people on-line with this new gospel and the movement called the Way. We've seen Peter screw things up in all 4 gospels, but he's still named the founder of the church by Jesus, and here, he gets a special message that turns some of the new church's world up-side-down! (Not everybody in the Jerusalem church liked it that Peter had this change of heart.) I really wonder what went through Peter's mind, when everything happened just as it did--he was on the rooftop praying, he got hungry, he had this vision, and then the three men from Cornelius's house showed up and the vision made a whole lot more sense to him. And then he just went with them! Did he even stop to be amazed at the situation? What goes through someone's head when the Spirit meddles so much in the midst of things?

I wonder what Cornelius was thinking, too. What's it like to be able to be so receptive that when a holy messenger shows up, you don't just lose your mind? We'd think Peter would be cooler with that than Cornelius, but scripture just says Cornelius was startled, and then he listened to what the angel had to say. He did as he was told, and what an amazing gift of the Spirit, to receive Peter into his home, to see Peter learn this crucial lesson in the life of the burgeoning church, and then to receive teaching from Peter and receive the Spirit and baptism! We don't always know how things worked in the early church, but it's still so amazing when we see that whole families were brought into the church together and received the good news. I wonder what it was like...but I guess I kind of know what it was like, too! How did we respond when we were brought into the family of faith, and when we first understood what all that meant?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Reflections for Ash Wednesday

I like to observe the liturgical calendar. The rhythms and rites of the church year are important to me, so it chafes me that the weather has been so awful this week that I’ve finally given in and cancelled my Ash Wednesday worship service. Aside from Good Friday, Ash Wednesday is one of the most difficult but most important times for worship of the year, in my opinion. Maybe it’s because I tend toward being hard on myself, or maybe it’s because I’m an introvert and the introspection of these two days is actually quite comfortable for me—either way, there’s something very useful in sitting in church with other sad-feeling souls on a Wednesday in the winter…even when there’s good basketball to be watched that same evening. In recent years, I’ve even begun to appreciate observing a time of silence on Holy Saturday—stopping to think about that tomb that I know will be empty the next day, but isn’t, for right now.

All of this is to say that I’m used to church on Ash Wednesday. I’m really good at taking out my sins and putting them in front of me, picking them up and scrutinizing them, and feeling bad about myself. There’s little about confession that I find terribly unsettling, save for the fact that confession itself is supposed to lead to repentance, that turning away from the “bad” and toward the “good” that’s a hallmark of real desire to be a more faithful disciple. I confess that as I’ve contemplated this blog post, I’ve eaten not one, not two, but three honey popcorn balls that are left over from a youth fundraiser this past weekend. I’d even like to eat another! I mean, what else is going to happen to them, anyway? We don’t have any other place to sell them and by the time the weather clears up and we have any kind of event at the church, people will think they’re too old to be eaten. And popcorn balls, even those made with honey, are healthier than eating a bunch of chocolate or something, right?

Well, there you go—I sound like I’m all ready for Ash Wednesday, don’t I? I have my list of sins to confess and I even have good excuses for them! I am set! But what I guess I’ve learned about Ash Wednesday, through the years and even this week, as I began preparing for a sermon the weather rapidly made less likely that I would ever preach, is that all this putting my sins out in front of me and feeling bad about them is not exactly the point of Ash Wednesday. As we begin Lent, it’s not just 40 days to feel bad about ourselves, which it sometimes feels like it is (to me, at least). It’s not just 40 days to feel kind of miserable, so we can be even happier when Easter comes. It’s actually 40 days set aside to put all this stuff before God and let God reckon with us, as we let go of it.

Think of it like this: I was bitten by a dog once, and the well-meaning physician who treated me told me to use a synthetic skin covering on the bite, to avoid bad scarring. Little did he realize that a thick covering, regular antibiotic ointment application, and the strong oral antibiotic he prescribed for me would actually help develop an infection in the wound, rather than heal it more quickly or aesthetically pleasingly. By applying his knowledge of burn wounds to this bite wound, he actually helped mislead me into more misery and suffering (not to mention, the next doctor that looked at that wound became very concerned because, apparently, dog bites very rarely get infected!).

I think that’s how we tend to do Ash Wednesday—and all of Lent, actually. We keep trying to treat our own “badness” in some sort of way, so as to make ourselves feel better (I have lots of good reasons!), or to save face with others (Look at how good I can be!), or even to ignore or downplay it (I’m really not that bad!). And we are so good at this! We have lots of experience—this is what we do 364 days of the year! (Or maybe only 363 or 362 days, depending on our Good Friday and Holy Saturday practices.) If we can take out all our sins for just a minute, put them on display before God for about an hour, say we repent, recite parts of Psalm 51, get a few ashes swiped on our foreheads, and then head on out the door, we’re good—we’ve taken care of things. So Ash Wednesday becomes this day to carefully arrange ourselves so the scratches and bruises don’t look so bad, to bring them in front of God, just a little bit, and then to get the heck out before we really have to deal with them…or with God.

Now, this probably makes it sound like I think none of us is really honest on Ash Wednesday, and that’s not what I’m trying to say. What I think is that most of us aren’t totally honest with God most of the time—isn’t that part of human nature? If nothing else, maybe Ash Wednesday can become the one day of the year when we really, honestly admit to God that we don’t have it all together—can’t have it all together—and really need a little help down here. Like it or not, the way we do that is to stop and admit it, and then take 40 days (plus Sundays) to try to let God change it. Maybe we like to let ourselves off the hook by giving up something that’s not too bad, or by making some miniscule change that we know we can handle for that long. How many of us bother with what the Matthew text for Ash Wednesday talks about (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21): prayer, fasting, and almsgiving? Two of those three disciplines make almost no sense to most Americans. Why abstain from anything? And why give money to the church and to the poor? What did they do to deserve it? Ick. Who likes spiritual disciplines, anyway?

But one writer on this Matthew passage makes this point: “Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, the great trinity of spiritual disciplines, have in common the practice of detachment and saying no as a way of discovering anew that God is not simply an extension of ourselves or a means to our own ends. Through these practices we seek to experience and listen to God as God, and to be transformed from our self-centered, instrumental, manipulative, idolatrous religious existence to the true life of faith and the genuine experience of the God who exists in freedom and comes to us in freedom as authentic Other. For this reason, we must perform our ascetical practices in principle, and in fact, ‘secret.’” (Rodney J. Hunter, from Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2)

So, Ash Wednesday is a time for us to get together, to sit down before God and be real, and to commit to trying to let God change us…again…And we do this together (though we won’t tonight at my church because of all this ridiculous snow and cold) because we need each other. We need God to change us, and we need each other to walk with us in person and be God with us, even when we can’t feel God’s presence with us. Jesus suggests in Matthew that we should do these practices in secret, and he gives specific reasons for that—because if we do them for recognition and honor, which was common in his culture, we are doing them wrong.

Let’s be honest. Putting the wrong bandages on our wounds and doing things for the wrong reasons hasn’t helped us at all. Sometimes it even makes us sicker. I think it’s time to let God work on the parts of me that are still so far from perfect, to stop pretending that if God will just wait a minute, I’ll get it all together. I think it’s time I stop eating honey popcorn balls when I’m not hungry and I’m just bored of this weather. I think it’s time I put my wounds out in the open before God, for a little bit of fresh air, and maybe for some fresh dressings that God knows can bring healing. And I think it’s time I ask someone else to keep me accountable to all of this. Honestly, as a pastor, it’s incredibly easy not to ask for anyone to keep me accountable with Lenten disciplines…my job is to ask everybody else how their disciplines are going, right? So, I think I’ll commit to what I’m going to do (if you need some ideas, I have a list of suggestions—or you could try out that old “prayer, fasting, and almsgiving” stuff!), and I’ll ask someone else to be in covenant with me about it…and I’ll actually let God help me get things together. I’ll let you know how it works out!

Oh, and here’s a song that’s been going through my head as I’ve been thinking about Ash Wednesday. It makes me think of all the ways I don’t have it together but try to pretend I do, anyway. God, help me to be more honest about this, and help me to let you work on it because how I’ve tried just hasn’t worked!

"Two Hands"
I've been living out of sanity
I've been splitting hairs and blurring lines
I am a house that is divided
In my heart and in my mind

I use one hand to pull you closer
The other to push you away
If I had two hands doing the same thing
Lifted high, lifted high

I have a broken disposition
I'm a liar who thirsts for the truth
And while I ache for faith to hold me
I need to feel the scars and see the proof


And if we just keep digging we can reach the foundation
Of our souls
And if we just keep cutting all the chains from our hearts
We'll lose control

And it feels like giving in
It feels like starting over
It feels like waking up, and you know it's coming
It feels like a brand new day
Open your eyes