The Fast I Choose

Today is a fast day. But in our church, we’re putting the fast off as long as possible.

Before we confess our sins, before we remember our deaths, before we receive the ashes on our foreheads, we’re going to eat together and we’ll probably even sing happy birthday to one of our students. Because after all, it’s not her fault she was born on a day when the church gathers to remember the darkness of sin and the inevitability of death.

And yet we will fast. Because today is all about the fast.

We fast to prepare for this holy season because that’s what Jesus did. He prepared to live into his calling by heading from baptism to the wilderness, from receiving a blessing in the water to facing a tempter in the wild. For forty days he fasted and prayed. For forty days he endured the anguish of hunger. For forty days he walked through the lull of fatigue. For forty days he felt the pangs that come from going without. And for forty days he remembered that the God who had sent him to this place was the same God who was providing for him now. He might not have had food to end his hunger or water to quench his thirst but with God he had all he needed.

From almost the beginning the church has been inspired by Jesus’ journey of self-denial to take one of our own. We remember his journey of preparation in the hope that the one we take will prepare us as well.

And so we fast, living without something that seems essential, to remember what it is we truly need. We experience the pain that comes from going without to receive the gift of rediscovering how we are already being filled up. We sacrifice to lose the delusion that we are self-sufficient to gain what we need to follow Jesus all the way to the Cross and beyond.

Of course, there are plenty of ways to fast. You might fast by giving up sugar, or heaven forbid, caffeine. Maybe your fast is a digital one, a more difficult sacrifice for some of us than giving up food. You might fast from being critical of people who see the world differently than you do. Or you might try the transformative practice of becoming less critical of yourself and learning to see yourself through the eyes of the God who created you.

(If you are looking for a last minute way to fast this season, I’ve got a few ideas here.)

And yet for me, the fast I choose to begin today is to fast from looking away. The fast I choose during this Holy Season is to train my eyes on the Cross and to center my attention on the generous love of God on display there.

If we’re honest we can admit how hard it is to have a single-minded focus on anything. We’re overwhelmed by the rush of things competing for our attention, the clamor of voices and the cacophony of ideas to consider, causes to support, actions to take.

We’ve been trained to have our head on a swivel, gazing in all directions. We’ve been schooled in the practice of not dwelling too long in any one place. We’ve been lured to believe that what we long for is to be found in a shallow understanding of many things.

Lauren Winner’s Wearing God has served as a guide for me during the last several weeks. One of the images holding my attention in a book full of them comes from Moses’ encounter with God at the Burning Bush.

The only miracle that day wasn’t God appearing and calling Moses from a shrub on fire. Indeed, as Winner writes, “The miracle is that Moses paid attention long enough to notice that the shrubbery was not being consumed…To encounter the blazing God is to encounter the God who can hold, and wants to hold, our gaze.”

We have been deformed by turning our attention everywhere else. But God can still reform us if we can find the strength to stare at the Cross of the One who has come for us.

It’s not easy to look at it, the brutality of its pain and separation. It’s a lot easier to wear a cross than consider this One – the destination charted by our sin and brokenness, the suffering inflicted on the One who taught us and still teaches us how to love.  And so we look away, desperate to find anything else to hold our attention. We avert our eyes, ready to consider anything but our own separation. It is all just too much.

But if we can look at it, we can find our hope. If we can turn back and linger, we can discover a path forward. If there our eyes can remain, we can remember all that has been done for us in love.

If we can go there, we can learn again the truth that sets us free – with God we have all that we need.

This is the fast I choose.

 

Thank You So Much For Sharing...

Wednesday Nights: Food, Faith and The Power of a Good Story

I sat down for a few minutes after a long day, only to glimpse at the accusations coming from the clock. So, I got up, hugged my daughter and my wife, and then did the last thing I wanted to do – I left the house.

Before I make my way from the parking lot into the building I smell the food that has been cooking all afternoon and hear the conversations that are already in full swing.

It is Wednesday night and we are about to have Church.

I make the rounds, doing some talking but mostly listening, catching up on the news – the appointments at the doctor, the latest leak in the building that will cost us more money, the budding crisis at school.  The food is ready, so I pray, because as the pastor apparently I’m the only one who knows how. The food is good and people are happy, so no one notices as I migrate to the youth room, where it doesn’t take long to get the pulse on how things are going – but only if I can manage to get them to look up from their phones.

We’re all here for different reasons. Some because it’s a meal that someone else has cooked. Others are lonely and want the company. Still more are here because this is just what we do, what we’ve always done – gather among friends who have become family, talk and share, and learn something about the Story we want to define our lives. There are some among us who are experts in the Bible, still others who are just learning their way around it. And yet when the pages are passed out, we are equals in the same silence that comes from reading and searching, hoping and believing.

We’ve been in Galatians for a few weeks now, four or five. We’ve learned a lot about conflict, and a little about circumcision and still more about some Old Testament stories we may have forgotten. But mostly we’ve been learning about identity – the new one God is making us in and wants for the world.

It’s hard not to think about the news when Paul writes about one humanity and how in Christ the old divisions don’t matter anymore. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” We add our own categories, thinking and repenting of the divisions we hold on to, asking God to help us understand who we really are and to let that truth work on us and lead us into the better future God wants to give us.

Paul is really mad with the Galatians. They’ve lost their way and so he doesn’t mince words – “I am in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.” The men look down at the tables not sure the pain he is describing. But the moms in the room, they get it.

What he really wants for them is to know God to participate in the work God wants to do in them. Allow God to form Christ in you, he says, and just watch as the old falls away and something new and so much better comes.

What I Can’t Forget

I sat in a professor’s office a few years ago. He asked me about a small, fledgling group I was a part of. What do you guys do, he wanted to know?

We cook some soup, I told him, we read a chapter of the Bible, and then we talk about it. This professor had forgotten more about the Bible than I will ever know, a product of his life’s work being studying and writing about Scripture. “Nothing like it,” he said. “Never forget that.”

I haven’t.

This work isn’t easy. Meetings require more meetings. There are hard conversations to have, problems that don’t come with easy solutions. The church is evolving – some think we’re evolving too fast, others not fast enough. Everybody wants to know how we can reach more people, why people aren’t coming and what will happen if we don’t figure it out.

If you read about church online everyone is a consultant with a ready made answer for what to do  – how to be faithful, what issues to fight for, the right new measures to embrace and the wrong ones to reject.

The confidence that comes from knowing you are doing the right thing, or at least not the wrong thing, can be pretty evasive. There are plenty of days when you get to the end and wonder if you’ve done anything to advance the Kingdom.

But not on Wednesdays.

I drive home after a long day, tired but not defeated. I reach the door and see my wife reading a story to my daughter. They both look up and smile. My daughter can’t talk yet, but one day she will. And when she can, I’ll tell her about Wednesday nights, and how her dad is tired but grateful for it all.

Because on Wednesdays we read and we eat and we talk and we listen. Because on Wednesdays we have Church.

Because on this Wednesday, in the midst of all, we have done something that matters.

Thank You So Much For Sharing...

The Cross and The Waffle House

One of the most meaningful parts of my job as a pastor is the gift of making the sign of the Cross on Ash Wednesday, declaring from dust you have come and to dust you shall return.  It is an incredible experience, beginning our annual journey to the Cross together by marking everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, with the reminder of our mortality and desperate need of Jesus Christ.

But this year, due to a badly timed cold, I received the ashen mark of the Cross from a friend and colleague as part of our ecumenical community service.  As I participated in the slow parade to the front of our fellowship hall, I was humbled as I received the mark on my forehead as a sinner whose life still has hope through the gracious love of God.

I thought that was the end of my Ash Wednesday, because little did I know that there was going to be another encounter with ashes – this time at the Waffle House.

After the worship service, my wife and I headed there. The crowd was larger than we had anticipated at church, so in the midst of preparing for worship and checking the status of the food being served, we decided to fast.

So to the Waffle House we went, that slice of Americana down the street where people from all walks of life and in all places in life come to seek a little comfort in butter and breakfast.

photo-1441633980922-d18ca151ee64

We ate dinner at the counter, rehashing the day, reflecting on our church and our work and our hopes and our dreams, not far from the college students laughing in the corner, a dad and his daughter catching up in a booth, a man demanding loudly that everyone should vote, cooks and servers trying to get through the night, and even a man who had just come from worshiping with us.

As we walked up to the register to pay and leave, our server looked up and asked the question you inevitably get when you go in public on Ash Wednesday.

“Where did you get those crosses?”

Being a good self-promoter, I replied that we had gotten them at the Methodist Church about three minutes up the road.

“What’s it about?” she asked.

I told her that the Cross is a sign that God is with us, a reminder that helps us as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter. As an afterthought I told her that churches all over the city were meeting tonight, trying to do the same thing – remembering God’s faithfulness and asking for strength for the next 40 days (I assumed getting into a conversation about how Sundays don’t count would be a rabbit trail that wouldn’t be helpful.)

“Everybody else was in church, and here I was,” she said with a laugh that betrayed the darker emotions of guilt and regret as a coworker drew closer to our conversation.

If I would have been quicker on my feet I would have taken some of the ashes from my forehead and marked her with the sign of the Cross.

Instead, I remembered the words of Barbara Brown Taylor – “To pronounce a blessing is to participate in God’s own initiative. To pronounce a blessing is to share God’s own audacity.”

So I looked at her intently and intentionally – sensing she was tired from who knows what, weary from struggles beyond my comprehension, longing for something that would help her through – and then offered the best blessing I know.

“May God be with you in all that you do and may God give you the strength you need.”

photo-1414358154612-ae3d3c120004

She flashed a huge smile as my wife and I walked away, the holiness of the Cross and the grace of God present and alive in a moment at the Waffle House counter.

Churches might have met all over town Wednesday night, but a church sprung up here too, where God touched us with that grace real enough to bless and cover us all.

Thank You So Much For Sharing...

The Cross and The Waffle House

One of the most meaningful parts of my job as a pastor is the gift of making the sign of the Cross on Ash Wednesday, declaring from dust you have come and to dust you shall return.  It is an incredible experience, beginning our annual journey to the Cross together by marking everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, with the reminder of our mortality and desperate need of Jesus Christ.

But this year, due to a badly timed cold, I received the ashen mark of the Cross from a friend and colleague as part of our ecumenical community service.  As I participated in the slow parade to the front of our fellowship hall, I was humbled as I received the mark on my forehead as a sinner whose life still has hope through the gracious love of God.

I thought that was the end of my Ash Wednesday, because little did I know that there was going to be another encounter with ashes – this time at the Waffle House.

After the worship service, my wife and I headed there. The crowd was larger than we had anticipated at church, so in the midst of preparing for worship and checking the status of the food being served, we decided to fast.

So to the Waffle House we went, that slice of Americana down the street where people from all walks of life and in all places in life come to seek a little comfort in butter and breakfast.

photo-1441633980922-d18ca151ee64

We ate dinner at the counter, rehashing the day, reflecting on our church and our work and our hopes and our dreams, not far from the college students laughing in the corner, a dad and his daughter catching up in a booth, a man demanding loudly that everyone should vote, cooks and servers trying to get through the night, and even a man who had just come from worshiping with us.

As we walked up to the register to pay and leave, our server looked up and asked the question you inevitably get when you go in public on Ash Wednesday.

“Where did you get those crosses?”

Being a good self-promoter, I replied that we had gotten them at the Methodist Church about three minutes up the road.

“What’s it about?” she asked.

I told her that the Cross is a sign that God is with us, a reminder that helps us as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter. As an afterthought I told her that churches all over the city were meeting tonight, trying to do the same thing – remembering God’s faithfulness and asking for strength for the next 40 days (I assumed getting into a conversation about how Sundays don’t count would be a rabbit trail that wouldn’t be helpful.)

“Everybody else was in church, and here I was,” she said with a laugh that betrayed the darker emotions of guilt and regret as a coworker drew closer to our conversation.

If I would have been quicker on my feet I would have taken some of the ashes from my forehead and marked her with the sign of the Cross.

Instead, I remembered the words of Barbara Brown Taylor – “To pronounce a blessing is to participate in God’s own initiative. To pronounce a blessing is to share God’s own audacity.”

So I looked at her intently and intentionally – sensing she was tired from who knows what, weary from struggles beyond my comprehension, longing for something that would help her through – and then offered the best blessing I know.

“May God be with you in all that you do and may God give you the strength you need.”

photo-1414358154612-ae3d3c120004

She flashed a huge smile as my wife and I walked away, the holiness of the Cross and the grace of God present and alive in a moment at the Waffle House counter.

Churches might have met all over town Wednesday night, but a church sprung up here too, where God touched us with that grace real enough to bless and cover us all.

Thank You So Much For Sharing...