Refocusing for Lent

Ash Wednesday: Isaiah 58:1-12

As many of us prepare to receive the sign of ashes to begin our Lenten journey, the Prophet Isaiah offers wise words to put our action into perspective. To bow down on our knees and wear ashes, to dress humbly and go without food, is not acceptable to God if the purpose is to call God’s attention to our faithfulness in participating in the rituals.

We live in a world where there are no sinless options, and our motives are often mixed. We are all colored with the brush of a society where others have to work to provide us with our day off. Our self-interest, God’s interests and the interests of “the least of these” are often confused and conflated, both when we ignore the needs of the poor and when we provide easy service to make ourselves feel better.

The fast God desires – today and everyday – looks more like this: Seeking to end injustice even when that means ending the extra benefits I receive from that injustice. Making my daily bread feed not just my family but some others who are hungry. Not turning my face from those who are homeless and ill-clothed but seeing them as my brothers and sisters. Daring to ask why we place heavy yokes on the shoulders of many people in the name of self-sufficiency.

We, of course, cannot live this acceptable fast perfectly, or even well. Even with our best intentions we quietly slip back into our own lives and motivations. That is why we need Ash Wednesday. We need to come together with others, with fellow travelers and fellow citizens, to be reminded that God desires better for us and for all God’s children, and that God has empowered us to do better.

One of the prayers in the Ash Wednesday liturgy has us pray these petitions:

For self-centered living,and for failing to walk with humility and gentleness:
Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal,
have mercy on us. 
For longing to have what is not ours,
and for hearts that are not at rest with ourselves:
Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal,
have mercy on us.
For misuse of human relationships,
and for unwillingness to see the image of God in others:
Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal,
have mercy on us.

The discipline and journey of Lent is not about denying ourselves some of our favorite pleasures nor even about taking on new service to others in need (although both can be very helpful practices). Lent is about refocusing our internally directed vision and seeing with new, clear eyes. Seeing that I am not God. Seeing that the reflection of God that is in me is in everyone I meet. Seeing that I already have so much more than I could ever lack.

May you see God and yourself more clearly this Lenten season.

(Prayer quoted from Evangelical Lutheran Worship)

Desperate housewife

The Bride of Christ, the mystical community of saints called to follow their Lord, is beautiful. She is ravishing in spite of her blemishes; her humanity acknowledges her divine nature.

Like a desperate housewife, though, this bride struggles with situations and expectations she is barely aware of. She wraps herself in vintage dresses of liturgy and music not to honor the path they describe but to insist on their timeliness by the very wearing. She chafes against necklaces of inherited dogma and a belt of tradition that make her movements slow and less agile. Her gait is hobbled by the tight shoes of hierarchy and privileged leadership.

Instead of dancing freely in the world, she is often found kneeling with a bucket and brush, doing housework. She is stuck in the kitchen and the pulpit even as a hurting world beckons her to help. Sometimes she teaches her children to fight rather than to cooperate; she may impart separateness, pride and apathy -- the opposite of what she wishes to teach. Often the ruminations of her mind overwhelm the meditations of her heart. Caring for her clan and setting the table for their meals, she can be so busy with many things that she forgets the one thing that is needful -- listening at the feet of her Bridegroom.

But it does not have to be this way.

I hear this mystical bride (not just denominations or congregations but what Luther called the "hidden" Church) mumbling and yearning for a better life. She longs to be light on her feet and follow her husband's lead. She longs to untether herself from the house and immerse herself in the pain and joy and boredom of ordinary life outside on the streets, as the Bridegroom did. She desperately wants to raise children who want as much to live out a new kingdom now as think about heaven someday.

It's up to us.

How we lead, how we participate in or consume her, these define the extent to which she is bound to our notions or free to follow her Spirit. How we treat her matters to her husband.

What will he say about what we have done -- or not done?

Going down to go up

Mk. 9:30-37

Just as Peter did a few days ago, when he rebuked Jesus for talking of his coming death, the disciples in this reading are again confused and disarmed by Jesus’ frank talk of his necessary fate. I understand their befuddlement. It is hard to hear that the one you left everything for – nets, families, familiarity – is headed for what most would consider a failure. Even his promise that he will rise in three days has no reference in their experience. What’s interesting is their response.

Instead of facing the uncertainty and asking Jesus to explain himself, they simply ignore the part they don’t understand and don’t want to hear and busy themselves with…arguing about which one of them is most important! Delicious irony. Their dreams of high regard are a way of not dealing with the fact that Jesus, the one who actually is the greatest, must cast all that aside in order to fulfill his purpose. No wonder they were silent when Jesus asked them what they had been talking about.

It is easy for us to get caught up in this same trap, to focus on God’s power and Jesus’ glorification and to assume that we will be rewarded with what the world will call success. But this ignores what Luther called the theology of the cross and what Richard Rohr calls the language of descent. If God chooses to show power veiled by what our culture views as weak, who are we to think that we are rewarded more than we must empty ourselves?

Jesus’ response is to gently bring them back to kingdom reality. It requires a mind shift – the back of the line is really the front, and the place to lead from is under the heap, not on top. How we honor God depends not on how we defer to power but how we welcome and honor the weak and defenseless. This is not a perspective our natural minds, steeped in a culture of strength and privilege, comes to on its own. But stopping to listen to Jesus in a loving relationship, and being bold enough to express our questions and doubts, can open us up to this bigger picture.