A Lenten Run

“You have two choices.  You can throw in the towel, or you can use it to wipe the sweat off your forehead.”

For us Baptists, the season of Lent is still something of a mystery.  We have heard of it and observed it in one way or another even if we have not fully satisfied our questions as to what it is and what it means for us. The word Lent comes from the old Anglo-Saxon word lencten meaning spring.  Embodied in the name is the promise of new life.  From the earliest days, the church has used the Lenten season to prepare for Easter with a two-fold focus, preparing for or remembering baptism, and penance.  In short, Lent is a time to remember our salvation and to repent from the attitudes and actions that indicate that we have forgotten it.

A good Baptist might say that Lent is about getting right with God; and it is, so long as we are mindful that God does more to get us right than we do to get us right.  A good Baptist might also say that we ought to be getting right with God all the time, and that is true as well.  But are we?  Are we intentionally allowing the Holy Spirit to teach us and form us each day as we seek to live Christ-shaped lives for the sake of others?

Frankly, it is easy in the everyday living of our lives to lose sight of God’s call on our lives.  Created to worship and honor God, we are always tempted to make something or someone else god, not because we are bad people in a rebellious, God-hating sense, but more because we are busy people who have many good things that need to be done.  Our piece of creation, namely ourselves, gets distorted and distracted from the intent of our Creator.

Lent is the perfect time for us to focus on the health of our relationship with God. What is growing out of that relationship?  What is growing in it?  As spring makes its way back into our lives, we might use it as a pattern for our Lenten journey.  In the spring of the year, fields are plowed and gardens are tilled in preparation for a new growing season.  Lent can be that time of spiritual preparation for us.  It can be a time to loosen the soil of our souls, breaking the thick sod of unhealthy attitudes and actions, and turning over new ground in which God only knows what might grow.

If you are willing to let the springtime activity of preparing the ground for planting be your guide for this Lenten season, you will need a plow.  Here are three options:

Read the story of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial.  Read it enough times so that at different moments in your day when you have a few minutes you can reflect on it from memory.  Run these events in the life of Christ through your mind as often as you think to do it.

Read Philippians 2:5-13.  Take the time to write it down on an index card and keep it with you.  Make time each day to read what you have written three or four times.  See if you notice God at work in you as you work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

I heard from a friend, who heard from a friend who had been running a half-marathon, the phrase, “You have two choices.  You can throw in the towel, or you can use it to wipe the sweat off your forehead.” This mother of two children read these words on a sign near the end of her race as her legs were cramping and her surgically-repaired knee had already buckled once.  They helped her finish her race.  Somehow they strike me as good words for Lent, especially in light of the Apostle Paul’s words in II Timothy 4:7-8, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

See if these suggestions will help as you seek to allow the Holy Spirit to conform your life to the image of Christ for the sake of others.  If you are reading the Bible through this year, you may want to use that already established discipline as you move through Lent and prepare for Easter.  However the Lord leads you, make room in your life for God to grow deeper roots in you.

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Jesus, Justice and Loud Rocks

The crowd is loud and excited.  Their enthusiasm grows as they catch a glimpse of a man riding a borrowed horse.  Some of them have seen him do the unbelievable.  Most all of them have heard the stories.  He heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, raises the dead, feeds the hungry and proclaims good news to the poor.  He looks at women not as objects, but as human beings created in the image of God.  His idea of being a neighbor is not limited by race, religion, social status or politics.  He invites everyone to the table and eats with anyone no matter how scandalous his or her past might be.

For those who have eyes to see, He is the Messiah, the Christ.  For those who cannot see Him, cannot see Him in the face of a hungry child, a thirsty man, a sick girl, a boy in need of clothes, or an imprisoned woman, He is nothing more than a trouble maker, a problem in need of a solution.

Today, this crowd sees.  Given what they see, the whole multitude praises God with great joy.  Never in their entire lives have the hopes of these people been so close to becoming reality.  No longer able to restrain themselves, their hopes and dreams pour out. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Some who are in the crowd, but not of the crowd, tell the man of the borrowed horse to quiet the crowd.  Their words have become dangerous, even treasonous.  Everyone knows that there can be no king but Caesar.  All the shouting could very well displease the Roman occupiers.  The results of such displeasure would not be welcomed by those who had made their peace with the powers and principalities of this world.  So they tell Him to shut the crowd up.  They do not understand that if the crowd is quiet, then the stones will start shouting.

In just a few days, the shouts of another crowd will fill the air.  A crowd that may well include some of the same people from the crowd that wanted Jesus to be king will shout, this time, for His death.  They will call for a cross instead of a throne and treat Him as a criminal instead of a king.

Looking back at those two crowds, one wonders how the public attitude about Jesus changed so quickly.  From the perspective of one who seeks to follow Christ, one wonders how the second crowd could have been so wrong about Jesus.  What happened in those few days to turn the opinion of so many against him?  Granted, political and religious leaders had already made up their minds about Jesus, but the people still seemed to look at Him with hope.

As tragic as Good Friday is, it is not the end.  Easter will come.  Resurrection will happen.  Unfortunately, that is not enough to convince most that Jesus is the Christ.  So through the years, Jesus continues to be not so much crucified as remade. He is remade into a more palatable figure, one who tends to agree with our way of thinking more than to challenge it.  He is fashioned as a Messiah who saves those that deserve to be saved and who condemns those that the crowd has already condemned.  He is worshiped as the Christ who bears the unmistakable image of the interpreters, editors, preachers and politicians who have, through the centuries, softened His hard sayings and radical demands.

What is to be done?  Is Jesus, riding on a borrowed horse, to be our king, or would we prefer to exchange him for someone more to our liking?  Which crowd will be our crowd?

Serious questions to ponder while we wait for Easter.  Even still, the stones are shouting,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Ash Wednesday, Lent and the Cross

From the side, it isn’t much of a cross sitting there on the communion table. A thin sliver of metal pointing toward the ceiling makes me wonder what all the fuss is about. With apologies to Monty Python it appears to be more a wafer thin mint than an instrument of death.

Now, the crown of thorns hanging on it looks rather menacing. Those thorns would hurt, but would they kill a man? Wound? Yes, to be certain and left untreated a nasty infection might follow, but death by thorns seems a stretch.

No, to kill Jesus with this cross we would have to take hold of it and beat him with it. One hit would likely not be enough. Death would come after repeated blows.  Then we would have bludgeoned him to death. Surely, none of us have the stomach for that.

Jesus is safe.

Safe that is, unless of course he persists in this notion of living in me. Then I have a thousand ways to put him to death, to make his living irrelevant, to make his teaching impractical and his dying mere nostalgia.

So then, maybe this cross is not the cross of Christ meant for his killing. Maybe it is my cross.  A cross meant to remind me each day that I am the one that needs to do the dying as impossible as that may be.

How is it possible? I never have to be reminded to think of myself, to serve myself, to protect myself, to do what is best for me. Only through indulgence, sloth and pride do I harm myself. Where would I find the will, the courage to die so that he might live in me?

Is it possible that God’s grace is that sufficient?

Spring Cleaning

The Gospel of John begins with soaring language about the Word of God taking on flesh and about true light coming into the world. The Word of God is living among us full of grace and truth giving us the power to become children of God. God is true light shining in the darkness and the darkness can not overcome.

Quickly, the story moves from the wonder and majesty of incarnation to the everyday lives of real people. There is wedding in Cana. When the wine runs out, Jesus saves the day by turning water into wine.

After the wedding, Jesus finds himself in the temple. There he sees much of the world’s wisdom on display and little of God’s. He is angry. The Cleansing begins. An interesting exchange takes place between some Jews and Jesus. Jesus says, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews wonder how Jesus can raise up something in three days that has been under construction for forty-six years. He was talking about himself as the temple.

The temple, a place to worship God and encounter God’s power and majesty, is a structure. Jesus says I am the temple. I am the place, the structure, the means whereby people will come into the presence of God. I am the connecting point. In Christ, is the fullness of God. Coming to Jesus, one encounters the wonder of God Holiness, the wideness of God’s grace and the depth of God’s of love. Jesus is the person and the place where God is met. Jesus is the temple.

So, what is going on in your temple? Is a party breaking out? Are blind eyes seeing, deaf ears hearing and captives being set free? Not so much, you say. Things are a little dry, you say. Why don’t you try to learn something new? Choose a gospel and read it all the way through. Keep a pen and paper handy so that you can jot down details that you were unaware of or had not noticed in previous study. You will be amazed at how many new things that you can learn reading an old, familiar book. If you don’t want to learn something, then do something. Set aside some time, 15 minutes, an hour or day it doesn’t matter. Just set aside some time and put that time in your temple, put it in Jesus. Use the time to do a Jesus kind of activity. Sit with a friend who is sick or alone. Call someone who needs some cheer or listening ear. Feed some hungry people. Fix something that is broken. You can do almost anything. Just give the time to Jesus. Offer it to him as offering and see what happens in your temple. See what happens in space where you meet God.

Which direction is your temple pointed? Is it pointed toward you or toward God? Don’t be embarrassed if your temple is pointed toward you. That would be our natural inclination. Certainly, the society in which we live would underscore the necessity of focusing our energy, attention and resources on ourselves. The temptation is great in each of us to make American idols of ourselves, turning our worship away from God and toward our own lives. Jesus taught us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We are quick to settle for just loving ourselves.

Lent is a time for asking these sorts of questions. We know Easter is coming. We know that Jesus will be crucified, buried and resurrected. The question is will it be enough? Will it be enough to cause us to give our lives to him? Can we trust him enough to move our lives into this temple? To be in Christ, so that Christ can do with us as he pleases? It seems like a risky proposition doesn’t it? The alternative seems safer, but it is not. In clinging to the notion that our lives belong to us, we cling to our own destruction.

Lent as Parent: Watching Over the State of our Union with God.

Did you watch President Obama’s address to Congress this week? In listening to the president address Congress and the nation, I heard a challenge that stood out from the rest of his speech. It struck me as a notion that, if implemented on a broad scale, would have more impact on our nation and our world than any other idea or program that President Obama put forth in his speech. The essence of the idea was simply for parents to parent. President Obama expressed it this way:

In the end, there is no program or policy that can substitute for a mother or father who will attend those parent/teacher conferences, or help with homework after dinner, or turn off the TV, put away the video games, and read to their child. I speak to you not just as a President, but as a father when I say that responsibility for our children’s education must begin at home.

The idea that education begins at home is beyond dispute. What often gets lost in our world to day is that the responsibility for education begins at home as well. The President’s five suggestions to parents were remarkably simple. Parents should attend parent/teacher conferences, help with homework, turn off the TV, put away video games and read to their children. How radical is that?

There I was watching a political speech thinking I was going to hear about ideas and initiatives for how our government was going to move our country forward, but right in the middle of the speech I was taken to a different place. Instead of thinking about current issues and evaluating proposals for dealing with them, I was thinking about being a parent and my effectiveness at nurturing and encouraging my children. The responsibility shifted from Washington to Etheld Reda Drive, from the government to the Sunday-Winters family, from someone else to me.

Like a paragraph in a speech that shifts our focus from one perspective to another, the Christian Calendar moves us to look again at ourselves and our relationship with God. The season of Lent would parent us if we would allow it to do so. It tells us with urgency and resolve what we should be doing in some measure all along. It invites us and urges us to examine our spiritual condition.

As parents, when go to open house at our child’s schools, we a get a picture of what is happening that notes from the teacher and updates told by our children cannot give us. When we sit down for a conference with our child’s teachers, we are face to face with the one doing the teaching. Lent says to us that we need to be present for a different kind of parent teacher conference, one that involves ourselves and the triune God. Gathered in the loving presence of our heavenly Parent, our teacher, the Holy Spirit, describes the ways in which we have learned to live out the sacrifice of our savior, Jesus Christ. Such a conference also reveals for us the ways where we still need to learn and grow and the ways we neglect the lessons of our saviors sacrifice.

Lent tells us that there is homework to be done. The TV needs to be turned off and the video games put away. In short, whatever so fills up our days that we have no time left to be in the loving, teaching, listening presence of God needs to be turned off and put away. Turned off and put away so that we can hear ancient stories of Gods amazing love read to us again by the Holy Spirit who abides with us always.

The Christian Calendar is a gift given to us from the saints who have preceded us in the faith. They are our mothers and fathers in the faith and the calendar is in a sense their way of being spiritual parents to us. The calendar that has taken shape through all these years of church history, tells us it is time to sit down, be still and listen.

As believers in Christ and followers of Jesus, we are always inclined to help one another. Being available to each other is one the important ways that we live out the call of God in our lives. However, in this reflective season of Lent there is a question that each of us has to answer for our own selves. We listen to each other share the wisdom of our shared journey. We worship, study and learn together. But after we have been to church, when Sunday School class is over and our fellowship has finished up for the night, the question remains, how do things stand with you and God?

That is the question that no one else can answer for us. That is the question that the season of Lent asks us. How are things with you and God? Not, how are things with God and the world? Not, how are things with God and your country? Not even, how are things with God and your church? How are things with God and you?