Sunday, February 28, 2016

3 Lent

February 28, 2016


Luke 13.1-9

+ I know this is hard to believe, but we are rapidly—very rapidly—approaching the middle point of the season of Lent. For some of us, that might be a reason to rejoice. For those for whom this season gets a bit heavy, that is why we have our Lataere Sunday next Sunday, with our rose vestments. We get a little half-way break for Lent.

For me, I actually don’t mind this season. It gives me the opportunity to slow down a bit, to ponder, to make a concentrated effort to do some very specific spiritual reading.  And I’ve been reading a lot of Richard Rohr this Lent.

For those of you who might not know him, Father Richard Rohr is a Roman Catholic Franciscan priest and author. He has written some truly incredible books on the spiritual life.

Recently, I was reading some articles he wrote about so-called 12-Step Spirituality. 12 Step Spirituality is pretty much what it sounds like. It is begins with the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Now, I’m not an alcoholic, but I’ve always found those 12 steps very interesting. They’re really brilliant. They are interesting because, as practical as they are, they are also very spiritual—very God-oriented.

Most of you might know what the 12 steps. They begin with admitting that a person is powerless over alcohol. They go on to say that we believe in a  Power greater than ourselves will restore them to sanity. We make a decision to turn our will and our life to God. We make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. We admit to God, to ourselves and to others our wrongs. We make ourselves ready to have God remove all these defects of character. We humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings. On and on, essentially trying to make right the wrongs we have done to others and then sharing the message to others.

These 12 Steps have helped countless alcoholics free their lives. The Lutheran writer and pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, herself a recovering alcoholic, wrote about the spiritual aspects of recovery and the 12 step program on the 20th anniversary of her last drink. She writes:

as much as I love theology, most everything I’ve learned about God and how God works in the world and in my life I didn’t learn in seminary. I learned it from sober drunks. Most of them don’t go to church but I’ve never met a group of people who talk more about God. Not ideas about God. And not feelings about God, but God as a real and solid part of life, not in lofty terms, but in a “if I don’t turn my life and my will over to the care of God, I’m screwed” type of way. It’s amazing what kind of faith comes out of desperation. These folks aren’t choosing God as some kind of self-improvement guru. They know that God can do for them what they cannot do for themselves and it’s rely on God or drink.


I love that kind of experiential relationship with God. Yes, I love systematic theology and all the thinking that goes with it. But ultimately it is this experiential relationship with God that we find in things like the 12 Steps that I really find amazing and wonderful.  Certainly, during this season of Lent, we see that those 12 steps of A.A. speak very loudly and clearly to us.  If we look at the things in our lives that we are attached to, that cause us unhappiness, that make us miserable and affect our relationships with God and others, than that becomes the point from which the 12 steps are leading.

The 12 Steps essentially do what we are called to do during Lent. They cause us to recognize that we are powerless over negative things in our lives as times. We then realize we have to turn away from it, ask God to help us to change, work to make right the wrongs we have done and then resolve not to do it again. That sure does sound like all that repentance talk we get during Lent. And I think Father Rohr and Pastor Nadia really hit that nail on the head in such a way when they show us the Twelve Steps as a way to move forward.  

In today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus say some very stern words to us that kind of sounds like a summary of the 12 Steps.:

“…unless you repent, you will all.”

Not pleasant talk. It’s uncomfortable to hear that! Especially when we hear words like “repent” we definitely find ourselves heading into an uncomfortable area. We may find ourselves exploring the territory of self-abasement. We may find some people lamenting and beating their breasts or throwing ashes in the air over all of this repentance talk. We have been taught for a large extent that what we are dealing with in all of this talk of repentance is that somehow God is going to punish us for all the wrongs we did and that is why we must repent—repent, of course, meaning turn around.

And at first glance in our Gospel reading that’s exactly what we might be thinking. God is angry and we must repent—we must turn away from what is making God so angry.

But if we look a bit closer and if we really let this reading settle in, we find that we might be able to use this idea of repentance in a more constructive and positive way.  In our Gospel reading, we find Jesus essentially saying to us that we are not going to bear fruit if we have cemented ourselves into our stubborn way of seeing and believing.  The Kingdom that Jesus is constantly preaching about only comes into our midst, as we have heard again and again, when we can love God, love others and love ourselves.  When we do—when we love—we bear fruit. When we don’t love—and it is hard to love when we are stuck in all that negative stuff like being angry or stubborn or resentful—then we are essentially the fig tree that bears no fruit.  And it’s important to see that this love needs to be spread equally. It is love for God, love for our neighbor and love for ourselves.

We are not bearing full fruit when we are only doing two of the three.  The love becomes lopsided. If we love only God and ourselves, but not our neighbors, then we are in danger of becoming fanatical.  If we love God and love our neighbors only and not ourselves, we become self-abasing. But if we strive to do all three—if we strive to love fully and completely—then we find ourselves being freed by that love.

And it is freeing. When we talk of our stubbornness, when talking of closing ourselves off in anger and frustration, we imagine that cementing feeling—that confinement. But when we speak of love, we imagine that cementing being feeling broken. We find ourselves freed from our confinement. We allow ourselves to grow and flourish.

That’s the point Jesus is making to us in our Gospel reading today.  And that is why repentance is so essential for our spiritual growth, for the health of our Christian community and for the furthering of the Kingdom in our midst.  Repentance in this sense means turning away from our self-destructive behavior, just like the 12 Steps tell us to do.

The Kingdom will not come into our midst when we refuse to love. The Kingdom cannot be furthered by us or by anyone when we feel no love for God, when we feel no love for others and when we feel no love for ourselves.

Repentance in this sense means to turn around—to turn away from our self-destructive behavior. Repentance in this sense means that we must turn around and start to love, freely and openly.   Repentance in this sense means that by repenting—by turning around—we truly are furthering the Kingdom in our midst.

There’s also another aspect to the analogy Jesus uses in today’s Gospel reading. If you notice, for three years the tree didn’t bear fruit and so the man who planted the tree thought it was a lost cause. But the gardener protests.  He promises to give the tree a bit of tender loving care and, we assume, the tree begins flourishing. What I love about that is the fact that it says to us that none of us are lost causes.

We all go through times in our lives when we feel as though we are bearing no fruit at all. We feel as though we are truly “wasting the soil” in which we live.  We feel as though we are helpless and useless and that sometimes it feels as though the pains and frustrations of our lives have won. We have been cemented into our negative feelings and emotions.  The pains and frustrations of this life have stifled in us any sense of new life and growth.

But that little dose of TLC was able to bring that seemingly barren tree to new life. A little bit of love and care can do wonders. It can change things. It can give life where it was thought there was no possibility of life before. It can renew and it can revitalize.

At this time of year, we are probably made most aware of this. Certainly when we look around at our seemingly dead and barren landscape, we might think that nothing beautiful and or wonderful can come from all this mud. And in this season of Lent, when we are faced with all this language of seeking mercy, on recalling our failings and shortcomings and sins, in this stripped-bare church season, it is hard to imagine that Easter is just a few weeks away.

But, in a sense, that is what repentance feelings like. Repentance is that time of renewal and revitalization that comes from the barren moments in our lives. Repenting truly does help us to not only bear fruit, but to flourish.  Repenting and realizing how essential and important love of God, love of our neighbors, love of self are in our lives  truly does allow us to blossom in the way that God wants us to flourish.  

So, as we journey together through this season of Lent, toward the Cross, and beyond it to the Resurrection, let us do so with our hearts truly freed. Let us do so with a true, freeing and healthy love in our hearts, having turned away from those things that are ultimately self-destructive And let the love we feel be the guide for our actions. Through all of this, let us bring about the Kingdom of God into our midst slowly, but surely. Let the Kingdom come forth in our lives as blossoming fruit. And when it does, it is then that will flourish.


Sunday, February 21, 2016

2 Lent

February 21, 2016

Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Luke 13.31-35


+ I don’t think I shared this with many of you. But…I may have. About nine years, I had a very unpleasant situation take place in my life. It was a situation that, even now, when I look back on it, seems very unreal. In about 2007, as I was serving as a priest at another congregation, I had a stalker. A pretty awful stalker actually. A very unstable person. He was bi-polar and was purposely not taking medication for his illness.

After I had to confront him when his erratic behavior become inappropriate, he turned his anger on me. And he manifested this anger in some very disturbing ways.  He began keying my car. Not just once. But many times.  After several months, after some five or six times, he did over $3,000 worth of damage to my car. That wasn’t all he did. He would call my house and leave very confrontational messages to me. He would show up at places he knew I would be and park his car in a way that he knew I would see it.  He was menacing. And he was frightening.

But, I was more afraid of what he was going to do to me. I really thought he was going to hurt me or kill me.  I imagined every kind of scenario. I imagined he was going to sneak into my bedroom at night and kill me. I imagined him surprising one day and stabbing me on the street. I went through it all. I had never experienced a situation like this before, so I didn’t know what could happen.  

And, what was even worse about it all, was that none of my superiors did anything about it. I went to them and asked them to help. And what happened?  Nothing happened. They didn’t help. They turned their collective back on me.  Although this happened on church property, involving a parishioner of that church,  the church did nothing to help pay my bills, even though this was all part of my job as a priest. Only when this particular person finally acted out against another person at the church (he stole her purse), was there finally some action.

It was a frightening and isolating experience for me. I felt alone. The only time I ever felt that frightened and alone before was 14 years ago today, when I had surgery for cancer.

With the stalker, the police couldn’t do anything because he wasn’t caught in the act (though they knew all about him). The Church, sadly, chose not to help until it was someone else who needed the help. And everyone who had not experienced it couldn’t even imagine the reality of this bizarre situation.

There were many nights in which I lamented and cried out to God and begged for God’s strength to keep me sane and strong.

Eventually, after the church finally stepped in as a result of this other person’s purse being stolen and put a restraining order on him, he eventually left me alone, although he did eventually contact me (he left a message on my answering machine about seven years ago) to tell me he was back on medications, although he never admitted he did it or apologized.

I thought about him a lot and kept up on him. I kept up on his multiple arrests for harassment, for terrorizing other people. And I wondered about him and, yes, even prayed for him over the years.

Well, this year, right before I left on vacation, I saw his obituary in the paper. Seeing that obituary, I reacted in a way I did not expect. I thought maybe I would feel relief. I thought maybe I will feel as though there was a great weight lifted off me.

But no. I felt genuine sadness. I felt a real sorrow for this person. And I felt as though I had failed this person in some way. I don’t know in what way or how I did—I couldn’t articulate exactly how I felt I failed him—but I felt I had. I still don’t know why I feel that way.   And all I could do was pray for him, remember him at Mass and hope that he finally found a peace he was unable to find in his life.

One of the lessons I learned from this incident—among several lessons—was a very hard  lesson on living with the threat of real violence. Violence, I realize, is something most of us don’t even consider in our lives. It very rarely rears its ugly head in our lives. But let me tell you, when it does, it is terrible. And you are not the same person afterward that you were before. 

And also, very importantly, we realize that violence is not always expressed physically. Violence can be expressed in multiple ways, including through intimidation, bullying and downright terror.  There’s no getting around violence in our lives.  We see it in the news. We, as a community here in Fargo, have seen it in the very recent shooting of Officer Jason Moszer and in the suicide of his assailant.

And even today, in our scriptures readings, we get some violent images.  First, let’s take a look at the reading from Genesis. In it, we find God making a covenant with Abram (soon to be called Abraham).  God commands Abram to sacrifice these different animals, to cut them in half and to separate them.

Violent and strange, yes. But the really strange part of the reading is the smoking fire pot and the flaming torch passing between the pieces.

If we don’t know the back story—if we don’t understand the meaning of the cut up animals—then the story makes little sense.  It’s just another gruesome, violent story from the Hebrew scriptures.

But if we examine what covenant is all about, then the story starts taking on a new meaning. Covenant of course is not a word we hear used often anymore. In fact, none of us use it except when talking about religious things. But a covenant is very important in the scriptures. A covenant is a binding agreement. And when one enters into a covenant with God, essentially that bound agreement is truly bound.

In the days of Abram, when one made a covenant with someone, it was common practice for that person entering the agreement to cut up an animals and then to stand in the middle of the cut-up pieces. Essentially what they were saying by doing so was: “let this happen to me if I break our covenant.”

Let this violence come upon me if I break what we have sworn.  What we find happening in our reading this morning is that it is not Abram standing in the midst of those cut-up animals. Rather it is God.  God is saying to Abram that if I ever break this covenant with you let happen to me what has happened to these animals. God is saying to Abram: “my word is good. If this relationship between the two of us I breaks down it is not I who breaks the covenant.”

As Scot McKnight writes in his wonderful book, 40 Days Living the Jesus Creed: “What appears to us as gruesome was normal for Abraham; what was great was how graphic God got in the act of promise.”

Then, we come to our Gospel reading. Here too, we find a sense of impending violence.
 The Pharisees ominously come to tell Jesus that he is in danger from Herod.  This is real danger. Life-threatening danger.  And how does Jesus respond to this danger and impending violence?  He is not concerned at all over Herod or even the danger that he himself is in. His concern is for Jerusalem—for the city which, no doubt, was in sight as he was speaking. His concern is for the city he is about to enter and in which he knows he will meet his death. His violent death.  

As he does so, Jesus does something at this moment that really is amazing. He laments.  He uses words similar to those found in the lamenting psalms. He uses poetry.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

It is beautiful.  And it is powerful.  It’s incredible poetry.  Knowing what he knew—knowing that in Jerusalem he will be betrayed and murdered—Jesus laments. He knows that what essentially is going to happen in Jerusalem is what happened while Abram slept. In Jerusalem, God will once again stand in the midst of a shattered body and say to God’s people (as McKnight puts it): “I will remain faithful. My word is good.”

Lamenting is one of those things we don’t like to think about as Christians.  After all, it is a form of complaining. And we don’t like to complain. We, for the most part, shrug our shoulders and soldier on. And when it comes to our relationship with God, we certainly never think about complaining to God.

But the fact is, although we find it hard to admit at times, we do actually despair occasionally.  Even if we might not actually say it, we sometimes secretly do find ourselves crying out in despair, saying, if to no one else than ourselves, the words from our psalm today:

“Deliver me not into the hands of my adversaries.”

Let me tell you—that has often been prayer. It was definitely my prayer nine years ago with that stalker!

“Deliver me not in the hands of those who hate me.”

It’s good, honest language and it’s good to be honest about those negatives feelings we feel occasionally. It’s a strange moment when, as we examine our scriptures readings for today, and we ask ourselves: who do I relate to the most from our scriptures, that we find ourselves relating more to the cut-up animals than anyone else.  

It’s hard to be in such a place.  It’s hard to realize: people out there hate me, or don’t like me, or want to do me real harm.

So, what do we do in those moments?  Well, most of us just simply close up.  We put up a wall and we swallow that fear and maybe that anger and we let it fester inside us.  For the most part, we tend to deny it.

But what about those feelings in relationship to God? Well, again, we probably don’t recognize our fear or our anger or our pain before God nor do we bring them before God.

And that is where Jesus, in today’s Gospels, and those lamenting Psalms come in.  It is in those moments when we don’t bring our fear, our anger and our frustration before God, that we need those verses like the one we encounter in today’s  Gospel and Psalm. When we look at what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel and what the psalmist is saying today’s Psalm, we realize that, for them, it was natural to bring everything before God. It didn’t matter what it was.  And I think this is the best lesson we can learn from our Gospel reading today.

Jesus is letting us see his fear and his sadness.  Jesus is letting us see the fear he has in knowing that he, in a sense, has become the sacrifice that must be cut in two as part of the covenant God has made with us.  He is letting us see him for what he is about to be, a victim of violence.

In fact, Jesus lays it all out before God and us. He wails and complains and lays himself bare before God.   He is blatantly honest in his lamenting.  

The fact is: sometimes we do fear and despair.  I despaired and feared when I had to deal with that weird sort of violence in my own life… I despaired and feared when it seemed I was alone in the face of all of that.  Sometimes we do want to pray to God,

“Hide not your face from me…”

It is in those sometimes awful moments, that it is completely all right to complain to God. It is all right to vent and open ourselves completely to God.  Because, the important thing here is not how we are praying or even what we are praying for.  It is important that, even in our fear, in our pain, in our despair, in our horror at the gruesomeness and violence we find in this world, that we come to God.  We come before God as an imperfect person, full of insecurities, exposed and vulnerable.

Take what it is hurting you and bothering you and release it. Let it out before God. Be honest with God. Because God knows. God has stood in the midst of that violence.  God, in Jesus, has experienced that violence first hand.

And what we might sometimes find in those moments of complaining and ranting is that the words coming out of our mouths are not ugly, bitter words at all.

But sometimes the words coming out of our mouths in those moments of despair are beautiful poetry. Sometimes, even in those moments, God takes our fear-filled words and turns them into diamonds in our mouths.  See what we find in this morning’s Psalm.  After all that complaining, we find the Psalmist able to sing,

“O tarry and await the LORD’s pleasure;
be strong, and he shall comfort your heart; wait patiently for the Lord.”

See. Diamonds. 

So, when we pray these psalms together and when we come across those scriptures full of violence that might take us by alarm, recognize in them what they truly are—honest prayers before God. Let us follow the example of Jesus, who even in the face of violence and death, was still able to open his heart and his soul in song and poetry.  More importantly, let us, as Jesus himself did over and over again in his life,  pray those psalms when we are afraid or angry or frustrated.  Let the Psalms help us to release our own anger to the God who loves us and knows us more completely than anyone else.

In the shattered, cut-open pieces of our lives, God, as a bright light, passes back and forth.

I can tell you from first-hand experience that even in that “deep and terrifying darkness” God appears to us as a light. All we have to do is recognize God in that midst of that darkness. And in doing so, all we can sometimes do is open our mouths and let them the poems within us sing out to our God.





Sunday, February 14, 2016

1 Lent

February 14, 2016

Luke 4.1-13

+ Lent is a strange time. It’s so different than the rest of the Church year, for me anyway. Because, what we’re forced to do in Lent is do something I don’t like doing sometimes.

I’m not talking about fasting or confession or giving up something for Lent.  No, what Lent forces me to do that I don’t really want to do is: look in the mirror. And not just look—but really look—honestly, bluntly—in the mirror.

That is not fun to do. It is not a pleasant experience to look at ourselves honestly and bluntly in the mirror. It is not fun to confront ourselves. It’s probably easier for most of us to confront the Devil—however we might view this personification of evil—in our own lives.

But, if you notice in our Gospel reading for today, that  three-fold commandment of Jesus is all about looking in the mirror and confronting ourselves. We find Jesus repudiating the Devil’s temptations with some strongly worded quotes from Scripture:

“One does not live by bread alone”

“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only [God]”

and

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

When we look at them, these commandments are really all about us. About me—the ego.  The Devil becomes this almost peripheral character in our reading, if you notice. He’s kind of like a whispering shadow at the edge of the story. The main characters of this story are, of course, Jesus and us.

So, in our Gospel reading, we hear first that we do not live by bread alone.  Looking in that mirror, looking at ourselves, we find that, yes, honestly, we’ve had too much bread—too many carbs—too much of everything.  This season of Lent is the prime time for us to look long and hard at our eating practices.

For the most people, we simply eat without giving a second thought to what we’re eating or why we’re eating it. And this goes for drinking too.   Certainly we have doctors who tell us that this is one of the leading causes of a good many of our health problems in this country.  Nutrition. Food. And too much food. And too much bad food.

When we realize how high the rate of obesity and related illnesses are, we know that food really is a major factor in our lives.  When we look at issues like obesity and eating disorders and alcoholism and all kinds of addictions, we realize that there is often a psychological reason for our abuse of food or alcohol.

We do eat and drink for comfort. We do eat physically or partake of others things thinking that it will sustain us emotionally. We put food or drink into that place in which God should suffice. A time of fasting is a time for us to break that habit and to nudge ourselves into realizing that what should be sustaining us spiritually is the spiritual food we receive from God.

Then, we hear “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only [God].” Here again is a major temptation for us. Let’s face it, for us: the world revolves around us. Around me. And one of the sources of our greatest unhappiness is when we realize others don’t feel that way.

We want people to notice us, to like us.  Ideally, we would like to have people fall at our feet and adore us. We have all thought about what it would be like to be noticed—truly noticed—when we enter a room, like a movie star at the Oscar’s. OK. Maybe that’s a bit extreme. But, just think about it for a moment. Look at how we feel when we send an email—and there’s no response. Or when we post something meaningful on Facebook—and no one likes it. I hate that!

But, it’s not about others. That’s all about me and my ego. And I’m the only one angry or frustrated. And I put myself in this position. Yes, I might be mad at others, but it’s ultimately MY fault for feeling this way.

We are all susceptible to self-centeredness, to that charming belief that the world revolves me—the individual.  That, we believe, will make us truly happy.  If we can be fully accepted, fully loved and appreciated.

But Jesus again nudges us away from that strange form of self-idolatry and reminds us that there is actually someone who knows us better than we know ourselves, who knows our thoughts better than we do.  We are truly loved, truly accepted, truly appreciated—by God. And we shouldn’t worry about the rest. Rather than falling to the self-delusion of believing our world revolve around ourselves, we must center our lives squarely and surely on God.

Finally, we are warned not to put the Lord our God to the test.  We’ve all done this as well. We have railed at God and shaken our fists at God and bargained with God. We have promised things to God we have no intention of truly keeping. We have all said to God, “If you do this for me, I promise I will [insert promise here].”

Again, like all the previous temptations, this one also revolves around self-centeredness and selfishness.  This one involves us controlling God, making God do what we want God to do.  This one involves us treating God like a magic genie or a wishing pond.

I’ve done this. I’ve been here. I’ve shaken that fist at God and railed loudly at God.

The realization we must take away from this final temptation is that, yes, God always answers our prayers. But the answer is not always what we want. Sometimes, it’s yes. Sometimes it’s no. Sometimes it’s not yet.

But what we fail to realize in all of this is that those moments in which God does grant us the answer to prayer in the way we wanted, it is only purely out of God’s goodness and God’s care for the larger outcome.  It has nothing to do what we do.  We cannot manipulate God and make God do what we want.  None of us are in the position to do that.  And if we had a God that we could do that to, I’m not certain I would truly want to serve that God.

These are the temptations we should be pondering during this Lenten season.  When I said earlier that these confessions of Jesus are the basis for our understanding of Lent, they really are.  Each of these statements by Jesus are essentially jumping off points for us as we ponder our relationship with God, with each other and with ourselves during this season. What Jesus experienced in that desert, we too experience this Lent—and at many other times in our lives. The confrontation with the Devil in the desert, is often a confrontation with ourselves in the mirror. It is a confrontation with that difficult and dark side of ourselves—that gossipy, self-centered, controlling, manipulative person we sometimes are.

These ego-centric behaviors really don’t promote our egos. They actually hurt our egos in the long-run. Yes, we might have full stomachs, Yes, we might be loved and appreciated and accepted, yes, we would have a fairy-godmother-God who grants all our wishes—but we would not ultimately be very happy.  We would still want more and more. But, in our core of cores—in our very spirits—we would still be incomplete and unfulfilled.

At some point during Lent, our job is to stop gazing in the mirror and to turn toward God.  Our job is to recognize this God who does truly grant us everything we really need and want, just maybe not in the way WE think those things should be given to us.   It is for that realization that we should be thankful during this season of Lent.

So, let us, when emerge from the desert, do so re-focused—not on ourselves, but on the God who truly does provide us with everything we need in this life, and the life to come.





Thursday, February 11, 2016

Listening to Sufjan Stevens’ “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”

Listening to Sufjan Stevens’
“No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”

What we long for
has turned from us,
revealing its long backside

and its even longer shadow.
And still,
even here,

a voice as pristine
as distilled water
flows. It murmurs

in this desolate place,
which we find so familiar
and so terrible

The voice causes
that which we long for
to pause,

to glance back for a moment
into the agonizing wake
it leaves. From

that raised-up place,
from that agony and blood
above us, there

is movement and recognition.
There is a moment of
distraction from what

must be accomplished
and fulfilled.
In this awful place, in

this long and exhausting
realm, it is the voice
that sustains.

It ripples and
cuts through the murk.
It is then—

the curtain torn
the hands wrung out,
the knees bruised to

the color of monarch-wings—
the song ends,
and we can stand up

from the dark, bloody earth
in a groping manner
and shiver.

                                                                         Copyright (c) 2016


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday

February 10, 2016

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6.1-6,16-21


+ Fourteen years ago—in 2002—Ash Wednesday fell on February 13. On that Wednesday, I was here, at St. Stephen’s. My friend, Andrea, and I had eaten supper at Juano’s that night and came over for the Ash Wednesday mass. I wasn’t a priest yet. But, I was, to be bluntly honest, in a bad place in my life on that Ash Wednesday. I had just been laid off from a job. And physically  I was not feeling well. Later that week, I would have to face that fact that something physically was not right in my life. And a week later to the day, on February 20, I was diagnosed with cancer.

It was a very hard Lent for me that year. For some reason, I think of that Ash Wednesday often in my life. It was an important night for me.  I remember, on that night in 2002, that I had made a concentrated resolve to change my life, to “turn my life around.” And just when I thought that was exactly what I was doing, the bottom dropped out.  

Not only did something bad happen to me. Something life-threatening happened to me. And I was faced not only with the unpleasantness of life. I was faced with sickness.  And death. My own death.

Maybe that’s why that Ash Wednesday and that Lent of 2002 was so important to me.  Because, let’s face it: that’s what Ash Wednesday and Lent are all about.  Ash Wednesday—and these ashes we are using tonight—are also ways in which we too face these harsh realities of our lives. They are reminders that we, one day, will die. I hate to be the one to tell you that news, just in case you hadn’t realized that before.  We are all, one day, going to die.

The traditional phrase for a reminder of our death is Momento Mori. Back “in the day”—we’re talking the medieval and renaissance day—it was common for people to keep some kind of momenti mori around—a reminder of death. Often, that was a human skull- a real human skull. Of course, when you think of it, what makes a better reminder of death than a skull? In those days, one was encouraged to look at the skull as one would look into a mirror, realizing that what one was looking at was really themselves.

Well, tonight, we have our own momento mori. These ashes that we are about to receive are, truly our momento mori—our reminder that we are al going to die one day.  To some extent, as morbid as it might seem, I think it wouldn’t hurt us to think about and ponder such things in our own lives.

In our lives, we do go about oblivious to death. We go around as though we are invincible, that we are eternal, that this moment in which we are living will last forever.  As much as we might wish for that and hope for that, the fact is, it is simply not the case. We don’t realize that we are bones and ash essentially.

In this service this evening, we are reminded in no uncertain terms that one day each every person in this church this evening will stop breathing and will die.  It’s sobering, but it’s what we are reminded of this evening and throughout this season of Lent. We will stop breathing. We will die.  Our bodies will be made into something that will be disposed of—either by cremation or burial in the ground.

In my life as a priest, I have presided over many, many funerals, with embalmed bodies and cremated bodies. And, let me tell you, doing so certainly puts into perspective the fact that we are all physically disposable. With cremation so prevalent these days, out momemto mori is not so much a human skull anymore. Our momento mori is nowadays ashes.

I thought about that a lot back during Lent in 2002.  I can tell you that that Lent was one of the most difficult Lents of my entire life. But it was also, I have to say, one Lent in which the real meaning of this season was driven home for me.

As I went through the shock of diagnosis, the emotional and physical roller coaster of treatment, I found myself thinking a lot about the fact that I will one day die. I thought about things like the disposition of my body and came to conclusions such as my decision to  be cremated and have my ashes buried in the family plot at Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Cemetery in Harwood. Or what the kind of funeral I wanted for myself (which is, of course, a High Requiem Mass with lots of incense).

And I thought a lot about what comes after all that. I thought about where I was going and what that place toward which I was going was going to be like.  I thought about my relationship with God, about how faithfully (or unfaithfully) I had followed Jesus in my life. And I thought about Jesus’ own encounter with his mortality in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Sometimes, as horrible as experiences like cancer are, they can be gateway events. They can be events in which we find ourselves opened up to a new understanding and new perspectives on the world and our relationship with God.

That essentially is what Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are all about. It is a time for us to stop, to ponder, to take a look around us and to take a long, hard, serious look at ourselves and our relationship with God. It isn’t easy to do.  It isn’t easy to look at where we’ve failed in our lives and in our relationship with others. It isn’t easy to look at ourselves as disposable physical beings that can so easily be burned to ashes or buried.  It isn’t easy to imagine there will be a day—possibly sooner than later—when life as we know it right now will end.

It isn’t easy to shake ourselves from our complacent lives. Because we like complacency. We like predictability. We like our comfortable existence.

However, we need to be careful when we head down this path. As we consider and ponder these things, we should not allow ourselves to become depressed or hopeless.  Yes, our mortality is frightening.  Yes, it is sobering and depressing to think that this life we find so normal and comfortable will one day end.   But this season is Lent is also a time of preparation.  It is a preparation for the glory of Easter.

It would be depressing and bleak if ashes and the skull were the end of our story. It would be sad and sorrowful if all we are reminded of when we ponder these ashes is the finality of this life. It would be horrible if we were not able to see the momento moris of our lives as gateways to something larger and more wonderful.

But for us, death is a gateway. Death does lead not to eternal non-existence, bur rather to eternal existence.  The darkness of death leads to the glorious light of Easter.

What I like about Lent is that is shows us that, even though we are living in the glorious light of Easter, bestowed on us at our Baptism, it’s not always sunshine and flowers and frivolous happiness all the time. If our Christian faith was only that, it would be a frivolous faith. It wouldn’t be taken seriously because it would ignore a very important part of our lives. But Lent shows us that, as Christians, we are to reflect about where we have failed—where we have failed God, failed others and failed ourselves. And it reminds us that death—death of our loved ones and our own deaths—is simply a fact of life.  It is a part of who we are and what we are. It forces us to realize that we are wholly dependent upon God for our life and for what comes after death.

Of course Ash Wednesday is not a time to disparage our bodies, to believe that our bodies are some kind of prisons for our souls. All we do on this Ash Wednesday is acknowledge the fact that we are mortal, that our bodies have limits and because they do, we too are limited. Lent is not a time for us to deny our bodies or see our bodies as sinful, disgraceful things. Rather it is simply a matter of not making our bodies our treasures.  

Jesus tells us in tonight’s Gospel not to lay up our treasures on earth, in corrupting things, but to store up our treasures in heaven. A lot of us put more store in our bodies than we need. We sometimes don’t take great joy in our bodies at all, but rather abuse our bodies or become inordinately obsessed with our bodies and in what used to be called “the way of the flesh.” We eat too much. We drink too much. We get lazy sometimes. And we let our bodies go sometimes.
This time of Lent is a time for us to find a balance with our physical selves as well as with our spiritual selves.  That is really the true meaning of Lent.
Where are our treasures?  Are they here, in the corruptible, or in they in the incorruptible? This is the question we must ask. This is the question we should be pondering throughout this season.
So, as we head into this season of Lent, let it be a truly holy time. Let it be a time in which we ponder whatever momento mori we might have in our lives. Let it be a time in which we recognize the limitations of our own selves—whether they be physical or emotional or spiritual.  
But more than anything, let this holy season Lent be a time of reflection and self-assessment.  Let it be a time of growth—both in our self-awareness and in our awareness of God’s presence in goodness in our life. As St. Paul says in our reading from this evening: “Now is the acceptable time.” “Now is the day of salvation.” It is the acceptable time. It is the day of salvation.  Let us take full advantage of it.




Saturday, February 6, 2016

3 Years Vegetarian

When I went vegetarian for the first time for any real length of time, it was March 1, 1994. I was 24 years old, and doing so was an accomplishment for someone who thought he had no discipline about food choices. But for 3 years, 11 months and 9 days, I was a very faithful and strict vegetarian. One of the biggest regrets of my youth was giving up my vegetarian diet in 1998.

When I look back as to why I gave it up, it had to do mainly with my health. To be blunt, I wasn’t feeling well, and I blamed my diet. My blame was partly true. It WAS my diet, but it was not my vegetarianism per se, I now realize, that was making me sick. It was all the cheese and dairy I had been using to replace the meat I had given up in 1994. But in 1998, I was still under the impression that dairy was not a bad thing.

Sadly, if I thought I wasn’t feeling well in 1998, I had no idea what was in store for me. Four years later, of course, came my cancer diagnosis. I do believe my diet had something to do with my cancer. But those realizations would only come much later, after much more trial and error.

Over the years I would go back to be a vegetarian, following the same patterns: give up meat, eat more cheese and dairy. Ethically, I still did not think that eating dairy was an issue. I was still living under the impression that cows needed milking, so partaking of milk and cheese certainly doesn’t hurt them. And, although I always felt slightly better as a vegetarian than as a meat-eater, I still believed that any issues with my health had little to do with my diet.

Three years ago I decided finally to give up meat for good, after several years of struggle. Meat was just no longer tasting good for me. I found myself suffering minor bouts of food poising (or suffering from symptoms like food poisoning) more and more often. And my body just wasn’t able to take it as it used to. So, after coming home from my annual Florida vacation, I had one final chicken burrito (of which I ate only a few bites). That poor chicken was the last meat I have eaten since.

It would take me another nine months or so to finally decide that it was the dairy that was making me feel somewhat rotten. Only then did the whole diet start coming together and my health improved drastically.

But, for now, I celebrate this first step down that road to health. I am thankful for this day and all it holds for me.


The big anniversary, of course, will happen on January 11, 2017, when I will make it past that 3 years, 11 months and 9 days threshold I didn’t make it to in my twenties.