Thursday, February 25, 2010

On Fasting

We are now a week into the Lenten season. Are you trying to give anything up? I am, although I admit I’ve failed about as much as I’ve succeeded. I’m more ok with that than you’d think, something I’ve written on before. Lent really is one of those things in which attention to the failures may be as helpful as resounding successes. The point of the season, after all, isn’t to accumulate gold stars for how well we’ve done but to practice recognizing our need for God.

The tradition of giving something up for Lent is connected to the spiritual discipline of fasting and can be traced back to the early days of the church. Bobby Gross, in his new book Living the Christian Year, notes that initially Christians fasted on the Friday and Saturday before Easter as a way of remembering both Christ’s death and entombment. Later the fast stretched to include all of Holy Week. By the Council of Nicea in 325, some churches had extended such observances to a forty day period of fasting and repentance much like the modern Lenten season.

In fasting, a person temporarily refrains from something good in order to make room in one’s life for something better, namely, the moving of God’s Spirit. For instance, a person refrains from eating for a period of time in order to dedicate the time normally given to meals to the seeking of God in prayer. For a more modern twist, a person might choose to give up TV, Facebook, an hour of sleep, or some other activity for the very same reason - to fill that time up with the pursuit of God's presence.

In the process of fasting, we are reminded of our dependence upon God and our freedom from dependence upon anything else. Most of the things in our life are fine in themselves (gifts from God, in fact), but it is amazing how we can become consumed by these things without even realizing it. We think we can live without them if we so choose, but of course we rarely get around to trying. Fasting during Lent is a time to try. Giving up a favorite activity or a favorite thing for Lent is a way of allowing one’s spirit to remember, I may enjoy these things, but I do not need them. They are not my master. God, alone, is my portion.

The inward discovery that all we need is God should lead to changes in outward behavior. Namely, we often should find ourselves becoming a more generous people. In giving something up we discover that we can also give something away. For example, if you have a Starbucks a day habit that you lay aside for forty days, that’s a decent chunk of change you’ll have come Easter morning. What will you choose to do with the extra money? One possibility is to give it away to those who need not practice fasting because their lives are already an exercise in need.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,

but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever – Psalm 73:25-26

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday: Learning to tell the truth

Today is Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of Lent, a season of confession, repentance, and preparation leading up to Easter Sunday. I didn’t grow up in a tradition that formally observed Lent, but I’ve come to appreciate this season before Easter. Its emphasis upon telling the truth about ourselves through the confession of our mortality and our sinfulness reminds me that I’m not as good as I think I am nor as strong. I admit, I need all the practice I can get when it comes to confession. For all the lip service Christians give to the idea confession (that is, telling the truth about ourselves), we’re not very good at it.

Do you ever wonder why we have such trouble with admitting our sinfulness to one another and to God? One of the most basic doctrines of our faith is that we are all sinners, every last one of us. Because of that, you’d think church would be the most likely place a person could come and bare her soul. But as we know, church is often the least likely someone will come to confess transgressions or weakness. More often than not, a person caught up in some sin will drop out of church instead of run to it. Or even more frequently, this battered soul will simply pretend as if everything in her life is as it should be. Far from being a place of truth telling, our worship, our community, void of confession, becomes a place of lies.

Why are we so prone to this type of personal and corporate self deception? While I’ve never seen the movie, Barbara Brown Taylor tells of a scene in that old movie, Charade, when Audrey Hepburn turns to Carey Grant and asks him, “Why do people lie?”

“People lie,” he answers, “because they want something and fear that the truth will not get it for them.”

Taylor adds, “If he had been a preacher instead of a movie star, he might have said, ‘People sin because they want something and fear that goodness will not get it for them.’” And that’s the great paradox of our confessionless Christianity. We know we are bad. We preach a gospel that says God loves bad people. But we don’t actually trust that this truth can set us free. So, instead, we pretend goodness. Not so much for God but for one another, so that we won’t experience each other’s scorn, so that we’ll keep belonging even if it’s to a group of self-deceived souls. In our hypocrisy, we toss one more sin up on the pile and it kills our worship and steals away our chance to have God’s truth set us free.

Lent, then, serves as a purposeful check upon confessionless Christianity. It is a time when we do our best to simply tell the truth. We still our hearts long enough to tell the truth about our mortality – I will one day die. We allow God’s Spirit to search our hearts that we might tell truth about our own sinfulness – I have sinned. In telling the truth, we miraculously discover the God who can forgive our sins and give us life everlasting.

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting (Psalm 139:23-24)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

This Valentine's Day, no carnations, please.

In case you didn’t know, Valentine’s Day is three days away. I admit, this is my least favorite holiday. My dislike of the day probably goes back to junior high school. The week of Valentine ’s Day was always marked by a fundraiser in which students were invited to buy carnations for one another. Delivery of the flowers happened on the big day. You can imagine the scene – by the end of the day the social pecking order of Pleasant Grove Middle School had been put on clear display by the amount of flowers one was carrying home. The prettiest girls and the most popular boys went home with truckloads of cheap flowers. The rest of us? Well, we were just glad our moms had remembered to buy a flower in our name and been tactful enough to sign it “Someone who thinks you’re great.”

Now, I’m not against romance. I’m not. And neither is the Bible. In fact, the Bible dedicates an entire book, The Song of Songs, to celebrating physical love as a gift from God. Prudish church leaders have attempted through the years to reduce this book to a metaphor about God’s love for the church leading to some fairly comical applications of the riskiest of verses, but I’m pretty they’ve missed the point (One commentator actually tried to make a verse about the beloved's breasts about the Old and New Testaments!). The book, once you get past the archaic language, is unapologetically about romantic, physical love.

No, it’s not Valentine's emphasis upon romantic love that bothers me so much as it is our culture’s emphasis upon romantic love as the highest thing that can happen to a life. Romantic love is good. It’s a gift from God. But it’s hardly the greatest good we can experience in our lives. On the one hand, not everyone gets to experience romantic love in this life. Jesus didn’t. Does that mean his life was somehow incomplete? Hardly. Plus, even those us who’ve been blessed with a significant other ought to realize that the romantic, infatuation part of our love for each other isn’t even the primary part. Remember, while the Bible does give one book totally to the subject, it’s only one book out of sixty-six. Most of life involves other things even for the romantically engaged: faithfulness, kindness, duty, sacrifice, and more.

Romantic love isn’t even the best kind of love. While infatuation and romantic love may lead us to make commitments to one another in ways we wouldn’t otherwise, it takes more than infatuation to keep us dedicated to one another. It takes commitment and repeated choices to put the interest of others ahead of our own. That kind of love, that self-giving, others-focused kind of love can’t be summed up in a day – it has to be lived out over a lifetime. That kind of love isn’t limited to romantic relationships. It can be found among parents and children, brothers and sisters, close friends, and even if we believe the audacious claims of the gospel, between enemies.

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven – Matthew 5:43-45.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Worship ought to do what!?!?

This week I asked lots of different people why they come to church on a regular basis. I loved all the different answers. Some were quite humorous.
  • “My husband is the pastor and I'd get in trouble if I didn't go” (and no, this wasn’t Alyson).

  • "To see my church boyfriend" (I once switched churches just to be closer to Alyson).

  • “Awesome free childcare so I get a break and [some] adult conversation” (I can sympathize with this one, too).

Other answers centered upon the meaningful way we are able to connect with both God and the community of God’s people during times of worship.

Understandably, no one answered, “I attend worship in order to die.” That would be a pretty weird statement – maybe even cause for alarm on something as light-hearted as an internet poll. And yet, that’s exactly what writer Marva Dawn says ought to happen to us each week. She explains her thinking in her book, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down:

“In a society doing all it can to make people cozy, somehow we must convey the truth that God’s Word, rightly read and heard, will shake us up. It will kill us, for God cannot bear our sin and wants to put to death our self-centeredness. The apostle Paul exclaims that he has been ‘crucified with Christ’ and therefore that it is no longer he who lives, but Christ who lives in him (Gal 2:19-20). . . Worship ought to kill us – and then enfold us in new life.”

Often, we (and I include myself in this) primarily think of worship as a place where we can come and find comfort for our weary souls – a weekly pick-me-up to get us through the next week’s frustrations. No doubt our God is a God who comforts the weary and lifts up the brokenhearted. Jesus after all said, “Come to me all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” But here’s the thing we often miss: God has higher aims than simply patching us up and sending us on our way. He desires to remake us into his image so that we might join him on his mission. God knows that our truest rest comes not from being a little better than we already are, but from being transformed into the the person God has always meant for us to be. Self-centered living, after all, is the ultimate life-quenching burden.

Corporate worship, a time in which we purposefully seek His presence together, is one of the primary places this great work of transformation takes place. By placing ourselves in the presence of the Almighty God, our old self-centered lives are laid low in order to pave the way for a new God-centered life to be built up – a process that is, I admit, as terrifying as it is promising. Which may be why the great Annie Dillard once wrote, “It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.”

Hope to see you this Sunday, crash helmet and all.

Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth – Psalm 96:9.