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.

A Lenten Meditation

Step 1: Find a cross. Notice that it is made up of a vertical beam and a horizontal one. Meditate on one beam at a time. Let the vertical beam represent your relationship with God. Let the horizontal beam represent your relationship with the world (family, friends, God’s creation)

Step 2: Read John 3:1-17

Step 3: Read the below meditation. What sentences are vertical relationships with God? What sentences are horizontal relationships with God’s creation?

When we encounter Christ as Nicodemus did, we are offered an invitation to deepen our relationship with Christ. What at first may start out as a surface level relationship can be extended out deeper and wider within us as we learn how to trust and obey God. With the deepening of the relationship, greater healing and wider faith is extended from our hearts to having a heart for others. For God so loved the world… God loves the world because it is God’s creation. Because we are part of creation, this must mean that God loves us, and when we can acknowledge that we are not the center of the universe, the love God has for His creation can be easily found within each one of us. If this is the case, we are called to love as God loves us. This may seem simple enough at first, but if we look at the world within us and around us, it is anything but simple. For starters, when we enter into relationship with God, we are inviting God into all aspects of ourselves –those parts we acknowledge and are proud of as well as those parts we dismiss and are ashamed or fearful of. God penetrates our hearts and souls so deep that it takes our senses, our faculties, and our brains a very long time to even register God’s healing presence. What can be experienced as ambiguous and partial on our end is made whole in Christ. In other words, we don’t see the whole picture, but only a part of the puzzle. It takes faith to trust and obey God wherever he may be leading our bodies and souls. Mystics call this experience of God a deep knowing that is very different from knowledge. Put simply, it’s a difference in knowing God rather than knowing about God. When this type of knowing is experienced, God gets to view the world through us, and visa-versa. Everything has changed in these moments; yet everything is the same. It’s as if a shift has happened in our very perspective, and God has settled in nicely to a comfortable warm heart. This was the deeper invitation Jesus was extending to Nicodemus. Nicodemus was impressed with the knowledge of God represented in the signs Jesus was performing; however, his spirituality was arrested and he could not move past the signs. He stayed in the flesh instead of moving deeper into God’s Spirit.

Let this be a lesson to us, and the lesson is this: God is constantly calling us into deeper ways of knowing and being in relationship with Him. Why not let go, give in, and say, ‘Yes.’

Step 4: Call to mind the cross in Step 1. What do you believe your default beam to be – the Vertical or Horizontal one? Is your relationship with Christ where it needs to be (regular prayer, worship, accountability group/mentor(s)) represented by the Vertical Beam? Is your relationship with the world where it needs to be (you, your family, your society – God’s creation is taken care of in your neck of the woods) represented by the Horizontal Beam?

Step 5: This Lent, work on the beam that is not your default one. Notice when the two beams are joined a cross is made, and a center formed. Crucify your self/ego on the cross. What remains is only Christ in the center of your life calling you into further relationship with him and his creation.

 

Looking into the Mirror of Temptation

A Sermon from Lent 1 – Gen. 2:15-17; 3:1-7 and Matt. 4:1-11 delivered By The Rev. Brandon Duke on March 5, 2017

In mirrors I see myself. But in mirrors made of glass and silver I never see the whole of myself. I see the me I want to see, and I ignore the rest. Mirrors that hide nothing hurt me. They reveal an ugliness I’d rather deny…Avoid these mirrors of veracity! ~In Mirrors by Walter Wangerin

 In Chapter 12 of J. K. Rowling’s world famous children’s novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the protagonist, Harry, comes across The Mirror of Erised. The mirror revealed “the deepest, most desperate desire[s] of [the] heart…” [1] Harry’s desire allowed the mirror to reveal his mother and father in its reflection. Seeing his parents weighed heavily on his heart because they died tragic deaths leaving him orphaned at a very young age. Harry was mesmerized by the reflection of his deceased family who stood in front of him alive, if only by the power of the magical mirror. The power was addicting, but Harry eventually returned to reality, fetched his best friend, Ron, and instructed him to stand in front of the mirror thinking he would see Harry’s parents too. To Harry’s surprise, Ron did not see his parents. Instead, Ron got to see his own deepest, most desperate desires of the heart. The mirror reflected Ron as a popular boy in school and at home. In reality, Ron lived in the shadow of his older brothers. Although not totally forgotten like the orphaned Harry, Ron longed for more attention and recognition from just about everybody – including his own mother and father.

A scene or two later, we find Harry sitting in front of the magical mirror when all of a sudden his narcissistic gaze is interrupted by the school’s headmaster, Professor Dumbledore. Dumbledore asked Harry if he had figured out the mirror’s purposes yet. Upon hearing Harry’s partial answer, Professor Dumbledore continued his lesson. He said, “…this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible…It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that”.[2] Towards the novel’s ending, Harry remembered Dumbledore’s advice, and instead of falling under the mirror’s enchantment again, used the mirror’s potential in order to make a decision that ultimately saved his life, and the lives of countless others.

In reality, stories involving mirrors and their variations are tales as old as time. Echo and Narcissus (in the water), Snow White and the Evil Queen (Mirror, mirror on the wall), Dorian Grey (in his self-portrait), Alice in Wonderland (through the looking glass), and in the Bible – The story of Adam and Eve, where the serpent acts as mirror, and the temptation of Christ, where Satan reflects a reality that is ultimately rejected by Jesus.

In the Genesis story, I find it extremely interesting when the serpent asked Eve about the tree in the middle of the garden because Eve seemed to reply with little or no insight. It was as if she had never thought about the instructions God had given her. Perhaps she was playing the role of good student trying to please the teacher? Regardless, the serpent became a substitute teacher for God, and tempted her to look again at the statement just spoken with more reflection. When she did this, she saw differently. “You will not die,” said the serpent, “Instead, your eyes will be opened” [emphasis mine].[3] It’s here where the scripture reads, “So [Eve] saw that the tree was good…it was a delight to the eyes.”[4] Getting back to our mirror metaphor, the serpent was revealing a desire that was deep inside her yet it had never been brought to the surface. When she looked into the mirror of the serpent she saw her deeply buried narcissistic desire – a desire that had the potential to separate her from God and others. She forgot about potential separation with her eyes fixated on the pleasing images of the fruit tree. She’s tricked. She’s fooled. She was given a half-truth. Adam and Eve then acted upon the temptation set up before them. The deed was done. What was in their hearts transferred to the mind. What the mind fixated on soon became action. Their world would never be the same.

When we turn to today’s Gospel a similar mirror is set up in front of our Lord.[5] Even though he was tempted in related ways as Adam and Eve, he remembered his relationship with God the Father. At Jesus’ baptism a chapter earlier, Jesus was given the title, Son of God, by his Father in Heaven.[6] In the desert, Satan takes this title and lays out three visions on how to live as Son of God. Christ ultimately rejected these three visions. Instead he revealed a more excellent way to live as both Son of God and Son of Man, vocations that call Jesus into a life fully lived and full of “compassion and solidarity with [a] needy [and] failed humanity”.[7] At first, the tempting vision of using his power as Son of God to transform a world that was hungry, a world whose spirituality was lacking, and a world whose politics were disordered were very powerful, almost utopian visions. History has shown us that utopian dreams can quickly become dystopian because they reflect a belief that some are called to stand over others instead of standing with.[8] “Jesus’ surrender to the Spirit [of God] allowed him to break through to the truth that his specialness as the Beloved Son [of God] gave him the freedom to take human suffering upon himself and to be the Servant of all”.[9]

Walter Wangerin once wrote, “In mirrors I see myself. But in mirrors made of glass and silver I never see the whole of myself. I see the me I want to see, and I ignore the rest.”[10] His opening line should give us pause in this season of Lent: In mirrors I see myself. He’s not talking about mirrors made of glass and silver, but of mirrors made of flesh and blood. Flesh and blood mirrors (I believe) are the best mirrors. These mirrors are our spouses, our children, our best friends and family members. These mirrors reveal parts of ourselves we’d rather ignore. We have complicated relationships with these mirrors, and at our best we pay attention to them. Sometimes, and when they reflect what we don’t wish to see, we yell at them, we ignore them, we turn away ashamed, or fearful, or anxious. At our worst we abuse them, assault them, and try and break them down, or tear them off the wall. We do this because we have forgotten something. We have forgotten that we are loved. We have forgotten that we are forgiven. We have forgotten that we (like our flesh and blood mirrors) are all children of God. It is only an illusion that we are separate. Instead, and if we are honest with ourselves, when we look into those flesh and blood mirrors what is reflected back is what needs to be healed within us. If we are brave enough to seek out healing within our hearts, we are then able to have compassion on others who are going through similar trials. Jesus taught and teaches us not to stand over, but to stand with. His ultimate act upon the cross was to not only live out this teaching, but to tangibly show us what love (in truth) looks like. Remember your own flesh and blood mirror (or mirrors) this Lent. Dust them off if you have to. Choose humility and be vulnerable and honest with them, and with what is reflected back at you. Then, ask God to heal what is revealed to you. Ask God to show you the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference.[11]

If the shoe is on the other foot, and you find yourself being the mirror for somebody else, before you react to the person in front of you, search your heart asking God to remind you of His patience, gentleness, and compassion towards you so that you may deliver a similar compassion to the other.

Harry Potter learned that The Mirror of Erised revealed, the deepest, most desperate desire[s] of [the] heart. This Lent, take your own desires give them to God asking that they become not our own selfish desires, but the desires that are most holy, that is, the desires of God.

Let us pray,

Spirit of Jesus, give us the courage to take our hearts and look it in the face! It is absurd to be surprised to see there cravings to be special, to be invulnerable, to dominate. Only if you deepen our awareness of your indwelling and the priceless gift of intimacy with the Father which is already ours can these desires give way to the truth that we belong to others and can serve and embrace them. Amen.[12]

[1]                 J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Scholastic Press, 1997, pg. 213.

[2]                 Ibid., 213-14

[3]                 Gen. 3:4

[4]                 Gen. 3:5

[5]                 Matt. 4:1-11

[6]                 Matt. 3:17

[7]                 Martin L. Smith, “The Wind in the Wilderness” from A Season for the Spirit: Readings for the Days of Lent, Church Publishing, New York, pg. 11.

[8]                 Ibid., 13

[9]                 Ibid., 13-14

[10]               Walter Wangerin, “In Mirrors,” from Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter, Plough Publishing, Walden, NY, 2003, pg. 11.

[11]               The Serenity Prayer from 12-Step Programs

[12]               Martin Smith, 14.

Graceful Time, Graceful Prayer

A Meditation on Keeping a Holy Lent – delivered at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church this Ash Wednesday.  

Sometimes, prayer is like an inside joke between you and God. An inside joke between lovers – A pillow talk intimacy – A full disclosure of full-er grace. Jesus doesn’t ask us to dress for success in order to please others, but to please him. “Why are you spending all your time trying to impress this group or that group,” he might ask? “Why are you defending the indefensible? When you give, when you pray, when you fast give all of it, your whole lot and life of it to me. Loose yourself in me,” says Jesus.[1]

The Season of Lent is a time to re-order one’s life; a time to think where one’s priorities might lay. J. Neil Alexander once wrote, “I used to believe that the important thing was what I believed about God. I have discovered that the really important thing is what God believes about me. I used to believe that the purpose of being a Christian was to learn to live a good and righteous life. I now believe that I am good and righteous, not of my own doing but as a gift of grace by faith in Jesus Christ. I used to believe that if I said my prayers and lived an obedient life, when I died I would inherit eternal life. Now I believe that eternal life begins at the [Baptismal] font and goes on forever. My experience of God has shifted from fear to love, from conditional to unconditional, from judgment to mercy. I used to believe that being a Christian was about me…I’ve discovered…that being a Christian is about God. That’s grace.”[2]

Grace. Maybe that’s at the heart of our inside joke between the two lovers – A history of giving and receiving grace in one another so that grace might be extended out and about to others. May Lent this year be for us graceful – further learning how to give it, how to take it. Remember, don’t flaunt it. Instead, let it be an inside joke between you and The Divine.

[1]           Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

[2]           J. Neil Alexander, This Far by Grace, A Cowley Publication Book, Lanham: 2003, 6.

Remember Your Beloved Dustiness

~Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Remember you…

Remembering is both blessing and curse. We want to remember the good, and forget the bad. We want to pay attention to those happy details in our lives, and dismiss the depressing. But is remembering really that simple? Is life truly divided into good and bad, happy or sad? I suppose for some it is, but during the Season of Lent, the Church invites us to remember with humility, integrity, and sobering honesty. Remembering in this way blurs the lines a bit, and we are called to walk in the gray for 40 days.

are dust…

Take out the biblical truth that we are all created in the image of God, and this will only lead to despair. Lent is a time of holy remembering, and this means that we remember alongside our Creator. We are dust, yes; but we are beloved dust – dust that breathes in the breath of God’s Spirit. During these 40 days, take the time and remember God deemed all creation good.

and to dust…

Holy remembering, and side-by-side with God gives us another partner along our Lenten journey. That partner is the Church. Through the Church we remember that we need forgiveness, and also remember to forgive others. There’s a corporate and cooperative element to our beloved dustiness, and the Church delivers the 40 days of Lent helping us to recall forgiveness together.

you shall return.

During Lent we return to another season of upright reflection that does not stand for individualistic navel gazing. Ultimately, Lent reminds us of our own mortality. We are stricken by the truth that in the end, we all shall return to the ground. We intuitively know this, but do we remember it? The season of Lent implores us to remember. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.