Friday, March 8, 2013

Joy on the Way to the Cross

It is interesting. As I read the lections for March 17 and try to find appropriate readings, that I notice that many of them are so very joyful and hopeful.

Is 43: 16-31--"I am about to do a new thing"
Ps. 126--When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion
Phil 2:4-14--I press on toward the upward calling

only the gospel text hints at the coming of the crucifixion through the words and actions of Jesus.

From this side of the cross, we view difficulty of holy week with both trepidation and joyful anticipation, We know that while we remember the horror of the crucifixion, Friday is not the final word. Easter Sunday is the final word. We must not forget the cross, but thank God from our perspective we know that the cross is not the end of the story. And thank God, that even through the lectionary readings, we are reminded of this truth.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Lenten Discipline and the Name It Claim It Pseudo-Gospel

Recently I preached a sermon focused on one of the seven churches of Revelation. The Scripture (in Revelation 2) said to the church, encouraged the people that "although they were poor, they were rich". Meaning that even though they were experiencing present economic and political hardship as a congregation, they were rich in the things that really mattered, such as faith, love, and honor.

One of the members of our worshiping community also attends a congregation that preaches an extreme form of the prosperity gospel. If anything bad happens to you, or if anything is difficult for you, or if you are not wealthy, it is because somehow you have failed spiritually. Somehow this text spoke to him about how wrongheaded the gospel of "name it and claim it" is.

Interestingly, my friend shared with me another experience. He is teaching youth spiritual disciplines. He approached this pastor about teaching about fasting during the season of Lent. The pastor reacted very strongly against any mention of the season of Lent, calling it "legalism". Why would this pastor reject Lent? At first, I thought because of its relationship to liturgical and Catholic teaching. Now I think different. I think this pastor rejected Lenten discipline because Lent trains the body and the soul in the healing and redemptive nature of self-denial and suffering. By embracing the fast of Lent, or any fast for that matter, one has to believe that going without something one loves or desires helps one grow, has the potential to bring one closer to Christ, and to help one understand how to be rich while experience the "poverty" of something.

Lent is about going to the cross with Christ. The prosperity gospel is about escaping the cruciform nature of the life of discipleship. The name and claim it gospel, in fact, attempts to treat the cross as a candy-dispenser of grace, forget about the suffering savior, and run directly to the empty tomb in triumph. As a result, the movement preaches a bastard half-gospel of salvation that attempts to transform the God of the universe into a step and fetch it bitch of the faithful instead of the Sovereign Master of all.

So I encourage you, as you embrace a Lenten fast, to take the opportunity to remember that God is God, and you are not.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Spiritual Discipline

In our congregation, it's the youth who really "get" Lent. Sometimes, it has seemed like the older folks in the congregation haven't even heard of Lent before. We've always tried to encourage the youth to dig into the Lenten season, more than just "giving something up" but really understanding why we do what we do and really getting ready for Easter. This year, some of the youth are giving things up for Lent. My son, for example, is giving up sweets. He is having a very difficult time with this. On Valentine's Day, faced with so many delicious goodies that were out of reach, the idea of giving up sweets literally brought him to tears. His dad has graciously agreed to give up sweets with him, and that support has seemed to help a lot. It also opened a "teachable moment" to talk about Christ and what He gave up for us. However, with the youth this year, we're also trying something new. A pastor friend of ours suggested that Lent could be a time to add a new spiritual discipline to our lives. So, several of us are "adding" instead of "giving up". For example, I've added reading to my morning devotions (2 chapters of the Bible and a study book). My husband is adding a random act of kindness each day. My daughter is adding liturgical dance to her worship time each day. But here is the most unusual thing about Lent in our congregation this year: everybody's doing it. That's right; the whole congregation is on board this year. Our new pastor (his second year with us) offered an Ash Wednesday service again this year. There was a great turn-out -- nearly as many as we have on Sunday morning! Not only was attendance good, but we also had many people "on board" with the idea of "giving up" something for Lent (or adding spiritual disciplines). Our little church may not be growing astronomically in number, but we are slowly making spiritual growth. And really, isn't that what it's all about? (By the way, if you have a book you'd recommend I study personally, let me know. I've finished my first book, Paul Tillich's Dynamics of Faith, and need suggestions.)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Resisting Consumer Spirituality

If one devotional is good, isn't ten better? Not necessarily, but this has been my mentality often times as I attempt to get focused with my devotional life. Why not, instead of doing just one set of devotions, try and do several? Why not get all you can get?

I have improved in the last several months in the discipline of having a daily devotional time. My problem is, I am awfully unfocused. For instance, one week I do the Common Prayer devotional from Shane Claiborne et. al. The next week I use the Divine Hours. Then I use the Daily Feast devotional with my Explore! book of the liturgical readings for the year all printed out. Then I may pick up some reading plan for a week. Then the Book of Common Worship's daily devotional guide. The guide to prayer for ministers and other servants sits next to my computer. And my desire to know and experience everything waters down my experience of any one devotional.

But this is the way I, and I suspect a few others, experience our spiritual journeys. Lets get in on all the experiences! Lets get in on every committee!. Lets go to every service! And why belong to one church when you can just flitter along and visit all of them?

The problem is, this attitude leads us to a lack of focus. We skim the surface of a lot of things, but we never really go deep with anything in particular. We have a lot of ideas, but we don't let the truth seep down past the topsoil of our soul and really take root. We live as consumers instead of disciples. We become connoisseurs instead of committed. It really isn't healthy.

During Lent will you join me in going deep instead of skimming the surface of our faith? Will you identify consumer spirituality in your life, and begin to eliminate it and replace it with committed discipleship? I hope you will!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday Sermon--Psalm 51--The Excellency of a Broken Heart

Most of you know that I like books. If you have any doubt about the fact, all you need to do is to look at the walls of my office, or the basement of our house, or the bookshelf in our bedroom, or the desk in the living room….I digress. Having said that, there are a few books that have had a huge impact on my life, my thought, my beliefs. One of those books is called “The Acceptable Sacrifice”, and it is a book by John Bunyan.

The name John Bunyan may be familiar to some of you. (He is no relation to Paul Bunyan, the mythical logger with statues built in his honor in Minnesota).He was a rather well-known rabble rouser of a preacher in his time, as well as a well-known author after he died.

John was converted from a self-serving, pleasure-seeking life to a life surrendered to Jesus Christ when he was 25. He quickly became a deacon, and after a while, a preacher of the gospel in the Independent and Baptist churches that he preached in. Since it was, at his time, illegal to lead a church that was not a part of the church of England, and illegal to preach the gospel in places like fields and prairies, he was arrested for his activities.

Once Bunyan ended up in jails in England, he began to write in order to instruct people in faith while he was a prisoner. One of the books he wrote was a book called Pilgrims Progress, an allegory of the Christian life that rates second in book sales in the English language all time (the Bible ranks first all time).

The book I hold in my hand is a book he was writing before he died. It is shorter than most books for that reason. And it was published four years after his death. “The Acceptable Sacrifice” looks at Psalm 51 as a guide for Christian spiritual formation. And what Bunyan concluded, in a way that runs counter-cultural to his time and ours, is that one of God’s greatest gifts is a broken heart.

Well, as much as I tried to argue with his points, I could not really do it. Bunyan’s words were firmly grounded in this Psalm of David. They are firmly grounded not in this passage, but throughout Scripture. God’s seems to best in cracked pots, in hearts that allow God to break them, in the contrite, the needy, the desperate, and those who are lost without Christ, and wholly dependent on him.

It is helpful to see what sacrifices are less important to God. Look at verse 16. Sacrifice is not as important. Burnt offerings are not what God desires.

In other words, in contemporary English, a broken and contrite heart is more valuable to God than what you can do for him. A broken spirit is a better gift to God than any amount you can throw in the offering plate. A broken heart is more honored by God than any words you can say, any song you can sing, any prayer you can squeak out. Instead of any of these things, God wants to see you humbled and needy, broken and helpless.

When David wrote Psalm 51, he wrote it after he had been confronted about the sin and the deceit that was present in his life. Everyone had seen it, but him. Everyone had noticed his apathy and selfishness, his sin and the evil way he had treated people with but Him. And when he was confronted with his sin, when he had his face rubbed in the truth of his wrongdoing by someone who cared enough to risk life and limb to confront him, he wrote this Psalm. He realized that it all started with a contrite heart. A broken spirit. His life changed when he had to come to God helpless, without excuses, without bravado, with nothing to offer, and nothing that could make up for anything that he had done wrong, and simply admit that he could not do life, at least a good life on his own. He needed to place his life in God’s hands, and let God do with it as he wished.

We are more like David than we care to admit. I am not talking about the Psalm 51 David that is full of repentance. I am talking about the pre-Psalm 51David who paid no attention to the fact that he mistreated Bathsheba, committed adultery, and then to cover up adultery committed murder—even though everyone else noticed and shook their heads.

We have a tremendous propensity to ignore, forget about, avoid, and push away dealing with our own sinfulness. Furthermore, we have a way of minimizing, justifying, and sometimes even celebrating those sins we cannot simply ignore.

We can only hope that God sends us someone who stops dead in our tracks, and holds up a mirror to our lives, and helps us realize just how lost, wretched and helpless we are. We can only help that somehow God stops us in our tracks and challenges us to turn around and change.

We tell ourselves that our sin doesn’t matter, and it rots our souls from the inside out.

We tell ourselves that our sin doesn’t hurt anyone, but our angry outbursts, and our unhealthy habits poison our relationships, our work, and our world.

The sacrifice God finds acceptable is a broken heart. A broken and contrite spirit. The author of the Psalm says this in direct relationship to the sin he had treasured and ignored in his own life.
If we cannot look at the sin in our own lives, if we cannot look at God, and see how our sin has broken his heart, has prevented us from being able to have the impact and influence in his kingdom that he wanted us to have, then we need to examine ourselves a little further.

If we cannot look at how the sin in our lives has hurt and pained the ones we hold most dear, and let that break our hearts, we need to pray that God will teach us humility and give us hope.
And so we begin the journey of Lent. The journey with Jesus toward the cross. Many of us take on a spiritual practice of fasting from something we love, or adding a habit we need in our lives during this season. We don’t do this in an effort to somehow make God happy with us for a while. We do this to bring ourselves closer to God. When we strip away that habit or pleasure we enjoy, we learn to be more humble and broken, and depend on God for what we need. We find that we lean on thousands of small things for satisfaction and happiness instead of turning to God. And when we add a spiritual practice into our lives, we make room for God to enter our lives in a new way. As we fail and have to begin again in our Lenten journeys, we also come to a point where we allow God to help us identify and surrender to him those empty and broken places in our lives. Either way, the practice of Lenten is not a virtue in itself, it is a path toward the Acceptable Sacrifice, the broken and humble heart that can be molded by God to do his will.

Amen .