Posts Tagged 'Lent'

Praying for the Other Side

Please don’t click away without reading and praying this prayer. While it’s titled “…for Mr. Trump”, I believe it speaks to all of us caught up in this bitterly contentious election. If your political perspective doesn’t match the author’s, pray for the politician on the opposite side of the spectrum–you know, the one who makes your blood boil! Feel free to lovingly adjust some of the specifics accordingly.  This prayer reminds us that even those on “the other side” are human beings created in God’s image, just like ourselves. We can’t self-righteously “aim” this prayer at “them” when it’s equally about “us”: “Let all of us see the same suffering Jesus” and “God who set aside all comfort”. It invites all of us equally to repent of giving in to the temptation to “look strong” and “mask our weakness”. It points toward deep, authentic unity as we pray beyond all that divides us,

“We need to make ourselves less again,
So that you can be Great.”

A Lenten Prayer for Mr. Trump

[Reposted with the author’s permission]

Father,
We’ve been astounded, frustrated, angry, resentful, defensive.
We’re feeling indignant, maligned, misrepresented.
We, as Christians, have reacted to the brand of “Trump.”
We confess it keeps us from praying for the man, Trump.

We bring your son before you, this man who claims your name.
We can’t understand him.
But you know his heart, you know his deepest thoughts.

Father, In his efforts to look strong,
You know where he feels weak.
You know the parts of himself he works to protect.
You know his defense mechanisms.
You are not fooled by them.
You are not limited by them.

Let your Spirit find those places of shame, of pride, of emptiness.
Meet him there with your grace, your kind challenge, your fullness.
Reveal to him the power of asking forgiveness.

When Mr. Trump goes to church this Easter
Let him see the suffering Jesus.
Show him the way Jesus laid aside his rights,
The way he defended the oppressed,
The way he listened, welcomed,
The way True Power was revealed in nakedness,
The way True Fullness came through emptying.
In church, reveal to our brother, not a comfortable institution,
But a God who set aside all comfort.

And when we go to church this Easter,
Let us see the same Jesus.

We confess that the news has shifted our attention.
We confess our hope has not been in your power.
Regardless of how the primaries go,
Who the candidates are,
What happens in November,
Our hope lies in You.
 Use this prayer, birthed from frustration, to change our hearts.

Let us see the ways we are also tempted to look strong.

We repent from our own efforts to mask our weakness.
We repent, as your Church, from our desire to protect an institution.
We don’t need to make America great again.
We need to make ourselves less again.
So that you can be Great.

Amen.

Our Lenten Journey–Who’s Walking with Whom?

“I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” is a tune we’re hearing each Sunday in Lent where I worship. It’s part of a “Centering Time” at the beginning of the service, in a different instrumental arrangement. The spiritual certainly sounds “Lenten”—“I want Jesus to walk with me…In my trials, Lord, walk with me…When my heart is almost breaking…When I’m troubled, Lord, walk with me…When my head is bowed in sorrow, Lord I want Jesus to walk with me.” Of course we welcome Jesus’ presence with us on this difficult and demanding annual road trip. Calvin Earl writes of this song and others like it: “…the spirituals were a path to freedom for the slaves…as they sung to God through a moan and groan, the cry was so deep God heard, and His comfort gave the slaves strength, courage and the grace to go on in the fight to free the label of slaves for themselves and generations of their children not yet born.”  Perhaps not to the extent of those African-American slaves, but we’ve been through our own trials, heartbreak, and troubles that leave our “…heart …almost breaking…our head…bowed in sorrow…” Of course “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me”.

Walking together

This past Sunday another “walking with Jesus” song started playing inside my head: “I want to walk as a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus…” It’s hardly a slave’s “moan and groan” toward freedom.It’s a joyful song written by a well-off young white woman musician on the staff of a large, affluent church. It’s in the Advent section of our United Methodist Hymnal. Its rich use of light imagery also fits the Epiphany season.

But I hear it helping us along our Lenten journey with Jesus. You see, “I want Jesus to walk with ME” can become a slippery slope before we know it. We start at “I want Jesus to walk with me because I’m overwhelmed by life and I can’t do this by myself.” Sometimes we get too comfortable. We like it here. We’re moving in for the duration. The next verse becomes “I want Jesus to accompany me on my stroll through life so he’ll insulate me from all the bumps and smooth out all the rough spots.” When I ask Jesus to walk with me, I get to decide where we’ll go, how fast or how slow, who we’ll stop and talk to along the way, and when we’ll cross the street to avoid “those people”. Suddenly we’ve asserted our will over God’s and life’s dangerously out of balance. Hardly the first time that’s happened. Way back at our very beginning (Genesis 2-3) God welcomed Adam and Eve to enjoy the fruit of every tree in his garden—except one. Naturally, on that one off-limits tree hung the fruit they couldn’t live without. And the rest, as they say, is history!

Lent is a season of reflection and repentance (re-direction) in which we may refocus our lives and refresh our relationship with God. That process may include clarifying just  who’s walking with whom on this Lenten journey: “I want to walk as a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus.”  We’re with him. We go where Jesus goes, sleep where Jesus sleeps, eat where, when, what, and with whom Jesus chooses, meet, greet, serve, and love the people to whom Jesus leads us along the way. Our annual “Lenten journey” invites us to reaffirm and deepen our response to Jesus’ simple life-changing invitation: “Follow me.” We join him on his journey as we say, sing, pray, and live, “I want to follow Jesus.”

Each of the four gospels tells its own story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Many congregations re-live that journey in their worship during the weeks leading up to Easter. You can follow Jesus’ journey on your own through a daily Bible reading plan. This one covers all four gospels. If you’re starting now (almost two week into Lent), feel free to adjust and adapt. Pay close attention to the places Jesus goes, the people he meets, and how he treats them. “Following Jesus” in daily life means at least going where he’d go, helping the people he’d help, caring most about what he cares most about, doing what he’d do if he were living among us today. And remember–WE NEVER HAVE TO FOLLOW JESUS BY OURSELVES! Discipleship is a team sport. The moment I say “I want to follow Jesus” I am linked to every other person now and throughout history who has made that same transforming choice. If following Jesus is new territory for you, or if you just want some companions to walk along with you with Jesus,  invite a friend or a few to share the journey.

Who’s walking with whom? Am I walking with Jesus, or is Jesus walking with me? Sometimes life gets hard. We’re pushed beyond our limit. We just need Jesus to walk with us through a dark valley or a difficult time. In the midst of those situations we often discover that he was closer than we knew sooner than we knew. When “I want/need Jesus to walk with me”, he does—as long, as far, as closely as necessary. Many people testify that they have come through such an experience stronger, more able to endure hard times, and more focused and willing to follow Jesus’ lead step by step. And the closer we follow, the more we discover his presence in all of life, especially those places we thought he’d never  go or could never reach us.

Let’s walk on together. At any given moment some of us are strong and confident, ready to move forward. Others are going through trials, heartbreak, our heads bowed in sorrow. The more we focus on following Jesus, the more we’ll discover how closely and surely he’s walking with us. In those times when we just need to lean on him (and our brothers and sisters) for strength and comfort, his strong constant presence brings us through and empowers us anew to follow wherever he leads us.

The road leads through Lent and Holy Week to Easter and God’s New World. The refrain of “I Want to Walk” keeps before us God’s ultimate dream for all He has created and loves: “In him [Christ] there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. The Lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.” [cf. Revelation 21:23, 22:5]

 

 

 

 

 

We Are What We Eat

“It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.”  Jesus, Matthew 4:4 (MSG)

Self-feeding is a key developmental task for us humans. Our older grandchildren (18, 20, and 22) learned healthy eating habits from their parents and their own involvement in athletics. They enjoy an occasional junk-food splurge, but overall they feed themselves well. “I’m not being fed” is no longer a complaint we expect to hear from them. They’d be told, “Fix yourself something. You’re (almost) an adult.” They’ve mastered the developmental task of self-feeding. Our younger grandchildren Lucas and Amelia have moved from milk to baby food to solid food. Now they’re learning to make their own healthy food choices. 5-year-old Lucas knows he’s allergic to nuts. He also knows he needs to consume some protein soon after he wakes, or else HE’S A GROUCH! 3-1/2-year-old Amelia lives for dessert, especially chocolate! Her folks work hard to help her balance her food intake. [As I wrote, No. 2 son David sent me this picture of lasagna he’d just taken out of the oven. He’s also clearly mastered self-feeding!]DavidH Lasagna

Yet one of the most common exit whines in church life is, “I’m not being fed.” It comes from sheep church members looking to leave their current congregation for pastures that appear to be more lush and green. “Not being fed” is an all-purpose complaint that might mean: “Pastor never talks about my favorite things;” Pastor drags me outside my comfort zone too often and I wish (s)he would quit it.” “Pastor and I disagree about nearly everything.” “Pastor doesn’t interpret the Bible the same way I do (and therefore with questionable accuracy).” Pastor keeps raising hard questions when all I want is easy answers.”

“I’m not being fed.” I heard it periodically during my forty-plus years of active ministry. So did most of my colleagues. More often than not it filtered up through third parties after the sheep parishioner had already wriggled through the fence and wandered off. The goal was rarely dialog, learning, and mutual understanding. It was more often assuring a steady diet of one’s favorite “foods” that wouldn’t upset a tender spiritual tummy.

These developmentally-delayed disciples live their whole lives expecting someone else to feed them–the pastor, the Bible class teacher, the TV preacher, the online Jesus guru. Paul wrote to some early Christians: “I gave you milk to drink instead of solid food, because you weren’t up to it yet.” (1 Corinthians 3:2 CEB) Newborn infants have to start with milk. But very soon young bodies and minds want and need much more. Strength and health come with “solid food”, not junk food. “If we’re not growing, we’re dying” is true not only for our physical bodies, but for spiritual, intellectual, and professional growth.

Our Lord freely offers us “the Bread of Life”–but we continue to choose junk food. Spiritual junk food is as easily available as the physical junk food in convenience stores and fast-food outlets. Junk food is full of empty calories. Its intentional overdose of fat, sugar, and salt overwhelms our bodies with excessive carbs and minimal nutrition. Spiritual junk food tastes good and satisfies immediately. But it leaves us empty. It provides little or no lasting nourishment. It doesn’t build us up. The empty calories of physical and spiritual junk food do us far more harm than good.

Spiritual junk food is self-centered. It’s all about what’s in it for you. It’s about what you can get out of God, rather than about what you can give to God and God’s purposes for God’s world. The seminary professor who taught us worship showed how “junk food” hymns overflow with first-person singular pronouns—“I, me, my, mine” etc. When it’s all about me, God gets squeezed out of the picture. That’s a toxic recipe for sure.

Spiritual junk food is exclusive rather than inclusive. It tells us, “Thank God we’re not like “those people”—Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Mexicans, Japanese (WWII), conservatives, progressives, poor folks, immigrants, etc. If the dish set before you consistently divides humanity into a good “us” and an evil “them”, it’s almost certainly junk food: “[Jesus said]…The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’ Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’ Jesus commented, ‘This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.’ (Luke 18:9-14 MSG)

Spiritual junk food offers too-easy answers to hard questions. Those easy answers may satisfy us initially. But we’re hungry again in an hour. Too-easy answers ignore the consensus of contemporary knowledge. They close discussion and foreclose the possibility of additional learning. They reinforce the status quo and excuse us from the responsibility of living out our faith day by day in the real world.

Worst of all, spiritual junk food takes a too-simple approach to the Bible. Truly “nutritious” Bible reading takes seriously Scripture’s character as an inspired complex collection of writings produced over many centuries. When Jesus went into the wilderness prior to beginning his public ministry (Matthew 4:1-11), the Tempter tried to trick him into a bumper-sticker approach to the Bible–“God said it, I believe it, and that settles it”. Jesus wouldn’t bite. ”It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth,” he replied. Scholars have wisely suggested we do well to take the Bible seriously rather than literally (another post for another day). What did a passage say to the folks who first heard it? What was their world really like? When we go a little deeper, Scripture becomes truly Bread of Life for us.

My Methodist roots remind me of John Wesley’s term “Means of Grace”. That was his term for spiritual disciplines and practices that open spaces in our lives for God’s unlimited love to nourish and shape us. You can read his sermon on the subject here. These personal and public practices help us be sure we’re  consuming good solid food, not junk food. This illustration shows how these disciplines support our focus on the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-34) and balance both personal and public discipleship. No junk food here. More than enough solid, body-building nourishment to get us through the wilderness of another Lent.

meansofgrace diagramThis year let’s clear out all the spiritual junk food that clutters our lives and our churches. Let’s covenant together to feed ourselves well and to offer hearty, nourishing “solid food” to all the hungry folks we meet as we grow together in Christ.

Let’s Not Fix Our Church

In this Lenten season of giving-things-up, I want to suggest something that we United Methodists and other mainline Christians could give up for Lent—in fact, for good. Let’s give up trying to fix our church. Let’s give up trying to save/renew/bail out failing, floundering, foundering institutions that are at best resistant to change and at worst incapable of the “adaptive change” that some would make our new United Methodist buzzword. (When I told my wife what I was writing about, she said, “So you want to let the church go to hell?” Of course not. Stay with me as we move toward a transforming alternative.)

I’ve been reading the latest round of “how-to-fix-the UMC” blogs, articles, and ponderous pronouncements. This excruciating experience has driven me to offer this drastic strategy. Let’s give up trying to fix/revive/bail-out/prop up our church. Let us embrace anew our stated mission: “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”. Let us dare to make our stated mission our actual mission by aligning the expenditure of our money, time, energy, prayer, and attention. Let us begin with ourselves and the brothers and sisters in Christ within our reach on any given Sunday.

One obvious question arises. “What is a disciple?” We could spend endless time and energy pharisaically debating the issue. Some (including myself) would say that our penchant for endless debate and insufficient action has gotten us exactly the results we should have expected. We’d also point out that our planet already has a climate-change crisis. The last thing we need is more hot air!

My working definition of “disciple” comes from Dallas Willard:

“A disciple or apprentice…is simply someone who has decided to be with another person, under appropriate conditions, in order to become capable of doing what that person does or to become what that person is…as a disciple of Jesus I am with him, by choice and by grace, learning from him how to live in the kingdom of God…I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live life if he were I. I am not necessarily learning to do everything he did, but I am learning how to do everything I do in the manner in which he did all that he did.”

Nearly every church has at least a few people who embody this vision of discipleship. Nearly every church also includes others whose growth has been severely stunted. Sometimes  these are long-time church members, but “developmentally delayed” immature disciples. (DISCLAIMER—All of us have periodic relapses into immaturity—especially when we judge and point fingers at someone else’s “immaturity”.) With that in mind, consider Johnny, the clearly-out-of-place student in this video, “Faith in Kindergarten”. [For those unable to view the video, “Johnny” is a 40-ish man enjoying his “career” in kindergarten. He embraces his success and steadfastly refuses to leave his comfort zone to face the challenges of first grade and beyond. If you can’t see the video, I urge you to get some technical support—perhaps your child or grandchild! It’s really a must-see.]

Who’s responsible for our collective spiritual immaturity? I am—along with my clergy colleagues, laypeople in every church I know, and conference and denominational leaders. We have settled for mediocrity in ourselves and others. We have accepted and even cultivated spiritual immaturity. Granted, we have seen notable individual and institutional exceptions. But they have been just that—exceptions. Our growing desperation to reverse decades of decline points like garishly flashing neon to our collective immaturity. Mature discipleship focuses minimally on ourselves and mainly on God and our neighbor. But we care more about ourselves, about “my church” “my needs”, and “being fed”. We care more about not rocking the boat and maintaining the institution than about embracing and immersing ourselves in God’s mission where we live life.

Bishop Robert Hoshibata, the recently-appointed leader of the Phoenix Area, wrote recently in his column “Living the Connection, Renewed by the Spirit” about getting acquainted with the congregations he now serves. He says that he’s heard inspiring stories of sacrifice, dedication, and accomplishment in his visits with churches. But so many of those have been “good old days” stories. Now those same congregations struggle with decline. A few, not nearly  enough, are finding a way forward. He identifies three questions that seem to shape that way forward:  “‘Who is my neighbor?’…‘What are the… physical…AND spiritual needs of the people who live around the church who are not yet part of the church?’…‘What can I or we offer them if we really want to reach out and touch their lives with the love of Jesus Christ?”’ 

NOW, AS PROMISED, A TRANSFORMING ALTERNATIVE— Let’s give up trying to fix our church. Let’s invite the Holy Spirit to heal the brokenness of our “developmentally-delayed” discipleship. Let’s stop living out of fear and start living by faith. Let’s decide to be who we say we are. Let’s intentionally focus all available resources on “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”.

It doesn’t take years of political maneuvering. It doesn’t require mountains of legislation. It begins with a critical mass here and there. The size of a “critical mass” varies according to our context. Jesus did a lot with twelve people. He told those twelve that “two or three” plus his presence could form that critical mass (Matthew 18:20).

Talk to folks who might join you in becoming a “critical mass”. Share your hope and dreams. Pray together deeply and frequently. Keep your pastor in the loop. Work with him/her, not against. Don’t be secretive. Do be humble and open. Find people who are serious about apprenticing themselves to Jesus. Explore together what that means for you separately and as a community. Your “critical mass” may well include formerly-churched, differently-churched, de-churched, even unchurched people.

Bishop Bob offers us one model for living out our mission. It’s hardly the only one. But it’s a great starting point. It’s simple, Biblical, and comprehensive. PLEASE—Let’s not engage in endless debate like good Methodists. Let’s be good Nike-ists. “JUST DO IT!” Let’s give up trying to fix our church. Let’s take up following Jesus as faithful apprentices wherever he leads us.


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