Ash Wednesday – A Call to Observe a Holy Lent

Do not think that saintliness comes from occupation; it depends rather on what one is. The kind of work we do does not make us holy, but we may make it holy.
     ~Meister Eckhart (1260-1329)

Today begins a 40-day journey. A journey into Lent. A deep expedition into the life of the soul. I pray that you find comfort that the church gifts us with this season of Lent, and may be bold enough to count those blessings over the course of these 40 days. What are some of the blessings that this saintly season allows?

The first blessing is that today is not a feast day, but one of fasting. This is a rarity in our tradition given that the prayer book only names 2 days – Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (BCP 17) – as times to make fasting a priority. Put differently, because fast days are such a rarity, we should pay attention to what a day like today truly reveals. Again, I claim it anticipates blessing for today, the church grants us permission to un-plug. To experience…to dig down and really see the world around us. Maybe today you will begin fasting from consumerism or television, social media, or tobacco. Will you be giving up meat on Fridays, or resisting chocolate on Mondays? No matter what your self-discipline will be, try to understand that abstinence and fasting are helpful for recalling us back to God, and can serve as specific practices that allow us to stand in solidarity with those who are in need. For example, when you are hungry today, remember and pray for those who are chronically hungry. If you are trying to live more simply, live simply so that the least of these may simply live. Remember not only your flesh-and-blood neighbors, but also your neighbor trees, flowers, forests, and fields asking such questions as: How do I love all of God’s creation? As well as, “How do I neglect these creations?” Finally, remember Lent allows us to pray for God’s creation and our neighbors but also gives us space to serve them in specific ways too.

The second blessing of Lent is that it allows for routine. We all have routines upon waking, sleeping, and everything in between, but Lent reminds us that our daily schedules can be grounded in an intentional life of prayer. Take these 40 days to experiment with a regular routine of prayer. Specifically, and with intention, divide your day up into times for prayer and meditation. Eat your meals with friends or family. Take time to labor and live into your vocations, but also find the time for learning and rest. When was the last time you truly went on retreat? When was the last time you took up something new simply for the joy of learning something new? Remembering afresh the ways in which we order our lives will harness that extra sense in which God also has his own ways-and-means in which God orders, guides, and directs our souls.

The third blessing of Lent is that we are obligated to confess our sins to God and our neighbor more frequently. We confess, not to be condemned, but to be forgiven. When we are forgiven, we are reminded of the peace of Christ. Forgiveness is a gift for it lifts up our heavy hearts allowing them to praise God, and to be in thanksgiving, honoring and adoring the One who grants us forgiveness of our sins. At once, confession gives us access to God’s judgment as well as his mercy. There is no season in the church calendar that emphasizes the graces of confession more than in the season of Lent.

Finally, Lent allows for further conversion of spirit. When we convert to something, we stop doing what we’re doing. We turn from it and pursue something altogether different. Conversion doesn’t necessarily mean we turn from something bad to something good. More times than not conversion happens when we turn from something good to something better. During this season of Lent, I invite you to start paying attention to your choices choosing the greater one that helps you live into the person you desire to be while acknowledging God’s graces that are there to assist you.

To sum up, Lent is a time of fasting, and a time of reflection on one’s routine in life. Lent is also a time of confession and ongoing conversion. Given all these blessed realities of this season, take the time to do them and if you cannot commit to all of them this year, choose one and work with God on how you will live into your fasting, routine, confession, or further conversion. Be brave this Lent. Experiment with the tools the church offers. Live out your faith comparing your relationship with God since this time last season. Are you growing stronger in the faith? Is there a greater sense of hope in your life? Are you walking in love more fully and with each passing day? Get curious about these virtuous things, and with intention (along with God’s help), observe a time of Holy Lent.

Ritual and Rules of Life

Preached on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost – August 2018 – at St. Julian’s

Although I thoroughly enjoyed my summer, particularly traveling to Martha’s Vineyard in June and to the big island of Hawaii in July, by summer vacation’s end, I was more than ready for the consistency of the school year to begin anew. The school year is a rhythm that brought me comfort as a student for so many years, and now I bear witness to its cadences watching my son, Henry, discover its many layers of melody. Being a parish priest, I am privileged to watch children and young adults get excited (and somewhat anxious) about starting back to school. St. Julian’s parish gifts us with active and retired teachers, school board members, custodians, and bus drivers whose anticipation for new students, classes, and curriculum is contagious to any lover of knowledge and truth. The school year renews rituals forgotten by summer. In August there is a resurgence of carpools and buses, bikers, and walkers. Our streets and neighborhoods are patrolled by crossing guards and parent’s alike. Teenagers who turned sixteen over the summer now not only have driver’s licenses, but parking passes displayed in mirrors evoking their driving legitimacy to anyone who cares to take notice.

All of the hustle and bustle of getting to and from school each day is something my own family experiences first hand. We live a block away from Fernbank Elementary, a K – 5th grade primary school located in the Druid Hills neighborhood of Dekalb County, and each morning I have the privilege of walking (my now 2nd grader) to school. I enjoy accompanying Henry to school immensely. We get to catch up on dreams, wonderings, anticipations, and anxieties. We occasionally join in with other parents and students who walk or ride bikes. Together, we comment on the weather, the recent weekend, or plan out a play date. Once kids are dropped off, pods of parents continue these conversations on our way back to homes, or away to the office until the next morning. For me, the very definition of community and neighborliness are found in these morning rituals as we share a piece of one another’s life journeys. As in all relationships that broaden and deepen, certain vulnerabilities occasionally surface: a parent may disclose a worry about a playground bully, the lack of volunteers for an upcoming PTA event, or more immediate realities like grief over a family member, a recent diagnosis, or expressions of overextensions and a general tiredness every parent knows well. Last week I had one of those meaningful conversations.

While I am mostly known in the walking circle as “Henry’s Dad,” attached to no other vocation but parent, there are a few couples who know I am a minister and they occasionally inquire into what it is -exactly- that an Episcopal priest does – or even is? Last week was one of these occasions. It started out simple enough: a few parents acknowledged my birthday, plans for it, and so on; but then came a reflection back to me. “On my birthday,” this person confessed, “I look back over the year thinking about what I’ve done, but I end up focusing on all the things I’ve left undone. I tend to compare myself to others too much and end up in grief because my life is not theirs.” Another parent who was in on the conversation couldn’t stand the heat (and heart) of this confession and tried to redirect, “Well,” they said a bit awkwardly, “today is Brandon’s birthday and I’m sure he’s going to have a great day.” The confessor, now somewhat humiliated, apologized with words but their facial expression gave them away. In other words, he was glad for his disclosure and confession. It was now out in the open, in the light for all to see. It’s okay not to be okay was written all over his face.

The next day our morning ritual of walking our kids to school brought us together again, this time without the well-intentioned friend who wanted to redirect the conversation, and we simply picked up from where we left off.

“Thanks for the birthday reflection yesterday,” I started.

“Sorry about that. I guess I’ve been searching for answers lately. I’m trying to find some spiritual direction in my life right now.”

“Don’t apologize. Your instincts are good. Many saints of the Church have asked such questions themselves.”

We then discussed his faith journey a bit, his struggle to pray with consistency, and wondering where to turn for such guidance. I was thrilled when he shared with me that their family had recently started attending the Episcopal Church just down the road in Decatur. I left him with some straight forward advice:

* Get a prayer book and read it

* Go to Eucharist every Sunday

* Get into a prayerful rhythm with the community, then talk to one of the two priests about your struggles with individual prayer like you talked with me today. They can help guide and direct you.

“You must get these types of questions all the time, huh,” he wondered?

“Not near as much as you’d think.” We wished one another a good day, and that was that.

Yesterday on my plane ride back to Atlanta, I finished a wonderful book, “Life in Christ: Practicing Christian Spirituality” by Julia Gatta. Julia was one of my dear professors of pastoral care at Sewanee. In this, her new book, she outlines the two main sacraments of the Church – Baptism and Holy Communion – within the context of the Holy Eucharist. Baptism and Holy Eucharist form the first part of the book while the second reveals numerous Christian spiritual practices from the Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox traditions that practitioners can do both corporately and individually. In other words, Julia lays out options for what is sometimes referred to as a Rule of Life – something my neighbor was perhaps longing for but didn’t have the words to articulate. A Rule of Life is something our Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Bishop Michael Curry, has recently challenged all Episcopalians to uphold and practice. He made this challenge explicit in his opening address to General Convention this year. Bishop Curry titled his sermon, “The Way of Love” and The Episcopal Church’s website has a link to both his inspirational sermon as well as what the church deems are “spiritual practices for a Jesus-centered life.” What Christians – new and mature alike don’t realize – is that many already practice a Rule of Life, but simply don’t call it that. For some, a Rule of Life may be categorized as a ritual, or a hobby, or even a physical activity that brings one into a posture of prayer. What makes these practices Christian is an intention to grow deeper in relationship with Christ, and by faith growing into the full stature of Christ (Eph. 4:13).

Starting on Sunday, September 23rd, I will be teaching a class entitled Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry at the 9:30am Sunday School hour. Two books will be required: The Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Those interested in a deeper dive into the graces of these two sacraments as well as those who desire a Rule of Life or a Rule of Prayer in one’s life are invited. Also, anyone who seeks to be baptized or confirmed in the Church are invited as well. My hope is that by starting with a deep dive into Baptism and Holy Eucharist this will wet appetites to other intentional ways of praying in Christ that are all very much grounded in our Anglican Tradition. A sign-up sheet will be forthcoming in the narthex starting next week. Just like we prayed in today’s collect: “Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples,” may we always find new and old ways of being gathered together in unity as a Church that prays without ceasing even while our hearts are still searching.