Monday, March 27, 2017

Lent drags on

Lent is dragging on. For weeks at church we have been reading the words of Jesus in the sermon on the mount. If you have read it you know it can drag you down. There is a lot in there about what we are not doing very well. Praying too piously, giving too proudly (this past week as I dropped a big bill into the offering plate I hoped others would notice it on top of all the smaller ones) and not making peace very easily. Reminders of what a drag we are. When I was a kid my church told me not to worry about that Jesus sermon because it was meant for the life of heaven when we will be perfect. That was good because it would take a perfect person to live that way. All we had to do, I was told. was ask Jesus to forgive our sins since he had already died for them and we were in the clear with a few right words being said. As I got older and read some other interpretations of Jesus' sermon I was bothered to learn that some people believed Jesus was talking about the life of the kingdom the way it is to be lived now. A few words do not save us rather it takes a life of dying to self and cross bearing. Lent reminds me how much I don't like death and how heavy the cross can be.

I long for Easter. In the East, among Christians, Easter is a much bigger deal than Christmas. For us, in the West, it's the reverse. Easter is mostly a time for Spring Break and more of us are on beaches than in churches. I think that's because Lent is not a drag. It is the time of anticipation for Spring that is coming to end our winters that have been a drag.

In the East, among Christians there is a stronger sense of celebration at Easter. Maybe it is because their lives have been more deprived of material goods and their lives more precarious and less peacable. They have had to bear more crosses. Life is harder, they read the Beattitudes more hopefully. For us, in the West, who have accepted Jesus as our Savior the issue of eternal life has been taken care of with a few rightly chosen words. Christ suffered and died for us on a cross. The cross was born by his back. So, we get to go to the beach.

I just read a book about the gospel and what a person had to believe to be saved. There was nothing about the sermon on the mount in there. You had to believe in the preexistence of Christ, and the virgin birth, and the deity of Christ and the crucifixion and the resurrection and a few other things but not the drag of Lent. Not the shared suffering and cross bearing. Not the dying to self.

Lent drags on until Easter. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians that as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ (15:20-22). Sharing the suffering and cross bearing leads to sharing the Life of Christ. Stanley Hauerwas says all we need to know about resurrection is what we are privileged to witness in Jesus' victory over death. There God subjected all things that gain their power from death to the Son making it possible (for us) to share in that subjection through the gift of the Holy Spirit. All we need to know about the resurrection we have been given through the sharing of the body and blood of Jesus.

Lent drags on but it doesn't last forever.

The Word on the hill

Like many cities in our county the homeless are part of daily life. They are a  presence on the street, sitting in outdoor cafes and congregating in the large park across from the downtown library. The city would like to reclaim the park as a pleasant downtown meeting place. There is a park committee that plans events in the park like concerts and food festivals. Mostly what people are aware of though are the homeless with their backpacks or strollers piled high with their earthly goods. They hang out, some sleep through the hottest time of the day, while others walk talking to themselves or a companion. If you go downtown, it's a fact of life that you will see, hear, smell or otherwise be engaged by someone who is lives on the street. I've heard people say they do not go downtown just for this fact.

The Church Without Walls gathers every Sunday a few blocks from the downtown park. People come for a traditional Episcopal service served outside in a parking lot surrounded by a hill and a few trees. The priest, Mother Beth, welcomes all, preaches the Word of God and serves up the body and blood of Christ. All are welcome including those who don't have to live on the street or in downtown shelters. Folks from my church, The Well, were there this past Sunday. Together we sat on the hill or stood under a shady tree. It was already near summer time hot. Bottles of water were available in coolers around the parking lot. We sang, prayed, and read the days lectionary texts led by members of the Church Without Walls. We passed the peace and ate the bread and drank the cup together. Then it was getting late and people were hungry and thirsty. It was time for us to go to our homes and the others to go back to the street. Wait, Jesus said, don't go away before you have something to eat. Eat? Some of us did not have any food with us to share. Some of us depended on the generosity of others to eat most days. Give what you have and you will have enough, Jesus said. So, some of us went to cars and brought out crock pots of soup, and bags of sandwiches and fruit. A table was set and very soon a line formed filling cups with soup. Ten crock pots were quickly emptied. Everyone left full and there were some leftovers. The Word on the hill, the body and blood, even the leftovers - we had heard of this miracle and now we had experienced it.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ash Wednesday

As far as I could tell I was the only person in the grocery store sporting an ashen cross on his or her forehead. I was coming from a morning Ash Wednesday service where our pastor, not known for her subtlety, had taken her thumb dipped in olive oil and then dark ashes and tattooed my forehead with a big cross. Though there were other tattoos and piercings in full view at this hip natural foods store, I felt self conscious. Sitting in the car before entering the store, I was debating whether to wash it off or not. Is it a matter of displaying my piety before the world? Or, was I washing off my witness ashamed of the gospel as St Paul said he was not. I decided my discomfort wearing the ashen cross was worthy of some kind of Lenten sacrifice. I had not considered giving up anything for Lent this year. Last year I didn't buy any books during Lent and that was hard enough. What habits, actions or behaviors did I want to be intentional about fasting from over these next 40 days my Lenten program guide asked. None sprang to mind. Not that I would not benefit from some sacrifice and not that none were needed, I may have been simply distracted. I had other things to do after I left this service. That's the way it usually is. Thinking about what's next instead of being in the moment. I'm not good at that. I was listening to a podcast on the way to the church and it was about finding God in the ordinary. We are afraid of silence the author being interviewed said and that is why we fill potential silences with screens. I could give up screens I thought for a second. I do have trouble finding God in the ordinary stuff of life. The author said it was more like making space for God to find us. God is not hiding from us, she said, it only seems that way because we are not paying attention. True. I could meditate more, I could take 15 minutes a day for silent meditation. Sounded good but I knew I wouldn't. Even my prayer times are mostly me talking. I must be a hard person for God to find.

The verse from Psalm 51:10 was read at the service. "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a right spirit in me." I have read about cleansing diets, and I just finished cleaning our car after a week at the beach so what would a clean heart feel like? Whatever it is I can't do it. Create in me, the Psalmist wrote, so it is God's work. I could ask.

The ashes are imposed. Interesting word. We are not supposed to impose our values or beliefs on someone. Our presence can be imposed, sorry to impose upon you, we might say. Ashes like the repentance they symbolize need to be imposed. It's not really something I am looking for. Imposed ashes make me self conscious. I have ashes on my face but that does not mean I have repented. If it's a witness, it's a false one. I have been to an Ash Wednesday service but that does not make me any holier than you other shoppers.

I was aware of a catch in my throat when the pastor imposing ashes said, "Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return." Nearing my full social security retirement age, I am more in touch with my mortality than ever. Ashes are not the only sign of mortality I am sporting as I stroll through the store. It is easy to see that I am no longer a youth. The clerk at least used to take a long second look at me when she checked out the bottle of wine I was purchasing.  What she is checking for has become obvious.

Turns out the ashes are a good reminder to be grateful. For this moment. For what God has given to me. For the heart God keeps cleaning. Truly, God does find us when we make a little space.