A Season within a Season

Nestled within the season of Lent, the season of St. Valentine lends a colorful contrast to the somber gray tones of the time.
It seemed a good and right thing to share with you a meditation in the spirit of St. Valentine from a wedding I had the honor to officiate. This young couple had been together for ten years before taking the leap of faith into marriage. They arrived with a large community of family and friends who celebrated in grand fashion their love and commitment. I’m quite sure that the party would have brought a smile to the face of St. Valentine, himself.
I hope you enjoy it.

Service of the Word

Old Testament Reading

A reading from the Book of Genesis 2:18-24
The Lord God said: “It is not good for the man to be alone.
I will make a suitable partner for him.”
So the Lord God formed out of the ground
various wild animals and various birds of the air,
and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them;
whatever the man called each of them would be its name.
The man gave names to all the cattle,
all the birds of the air, and all wild animals;
but none proved to be the suitable partner for the man.
So the Lord God cast a deep sleep on the man,
and while he was asleep,
he took out one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh.
The Lord God then built up into a woman the rib
that he had taken from the man.
When he brought her to the man, the man said:
“This one, at last, is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
This one shall be called ‘woman,’
for out of ‘her man’ this one has been taken.”
That is why a man leaves his father and mother
and clings to his wife,
and the two of them become one body.

New Testament Reading

A reading from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans 12:1-2, 9-18
I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God,
to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,
holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.
Do not conform yourselves to this age
but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,
that you may discern what is the will of God,
what is good and pleasing and perfect.
Let love be sincere;
hate what is evil,
hold on to what is good;
love one another with mutual affection;
anticipate one another in showing honor.
Do not grow slack in zeal,
be fervent in spirit,
serve the Lord.
Rejoice in hope,
endure in affliction,
persevere in prayer.
Contribute to the needs of the holy ones,
exercise hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you,
bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice,
weep with those who weep.
Have the same regard for one another;
do not be haughty but associate with the lowly;
do not be wise in your own estimation.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil;
be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all.
If possible, on your part, live at peace with all.

Meditation on the Word

Some people live life dangerously. I know people who jump out of perfectly well functioning airplanes, who dive off cliffs into rivers, and who actually go to parties where they don’t know a soul. Why, it’s my understanding that people still fall in love, get married, and have children!
All that said: I have an announcement to make. The two people standing here in front of you today are living life dangerously. It started about ten years ago when Rebecca felt ready to make some new friends. She didn’t jump out of an airplane or off a cliff. She did something equally dangerous. She went to a party where she didn’t know a soul.

Once in the door she found herself drawn to a familiar face in the crowd. She thought it was her high school friend Gilbert, but when she got closer, she saw that it was not. It was his brother Brandon. Brandon recalled the moment when he looked deep into her eyes and realized that he was captivated. By the end of the night he had given her a hug and she had given him her phone number. Fast forward, and here they are today in the ultimate act of living dangerously; taking the solemn vows of marriage.

I have to admit that I too was living life dangerously, when I said to Rebecca, “You pick any readings for your wedding that you want. I will make it work”. It was Rebecca who picked the two Bible passages, ~ readings rich, complex, beautiful . . . and long. In the Old Testament reading, we see two creation accounts linked by the realities of living dangerously.

In the first we have God creating a new world. How about that for dangerous? But God is God and he can do it. He created a perfect new world populated by one perfect human being. I don’t know about you but I think if I had a perfect world all to myself I would be perfectly happy but that human was not. God looked into his heart and saw that he was lonely. So god made birds. The man remained lonely. God made fish and the man was still lonely. God made four legged creatures: cats and dogs, lions and tigers and still, the man was lonely. So God went deep into the very core of humanity and created woman. That was really dangerous. And I’m sure God knew it and he did it anyway, because when He created woman, he created relationship, and abolished loneliness.

Rebecca and Brandon, that night when you met, God created love and he began creating relationship and in so doing, ended loneliness for the two of you forever. If you have any questions about it, turn around and look behind you. There are over 100 people out here. This is the community that you are about to establish with your marriage today and that community will go with you everywhere. You will never be lonely again.
Of course, it’s not always easy to keep a community intact; that’s why our second reading found in the letter of Paul to the young Christian community in Rome is so relevant.

First of all, we’re looking at Paul who lived life in an incredibly dangerous fashion. Not only did he live dangerously, he encouraged others to do the same. Trust me. It was no easy task to be a Christian community in the early days of Rome. Nor is it easy to be a loving community today. Paul knew it; he knew the difficulty and therefore he gave us a list, a menu if you will of do’s and don’ts about how to create and maintain a community. I’ve boiled it down to three items:

1. Don’t buy into the ways of the world.

We are a throw-away culture. We buy cheap, treat cheap and throw away. Not only is it true with objects, we do it with important things, like love. We treat love shabbily and throw it away. We throw away marriages, relationships, entire communities. Paul would say do not buy into the ways of the world. Instead, buy in to God’s way.

Here is God’s way, “I am the Alpha and the Omega. I am the beginning and the end. I am with you until the end of time”. God created this world, and God is not going anyplace. He does not abandon what he creates. That’s God’s way of doing community, whether it is a community of two as in this marriage or a community of 102. It makes you think about it doesn’t it? What you create today when you promise to have and to hold each other till death do you part is where you will stay for the rest of your life –if you buy into God’s way.

2. Don’t be a slacker; don’t be lazy.

Paul suggests that if you are going to have community you can count on for the rest of your life, put some zeal into it. Loosely translated, he says get up off the couch, put on something cute, go out, and have fun as a couple and with friends. Make plans, take vacations, do special things together. Work on a project; build something you’ll both enjoy! Be hospitable! Clean up the house, and invite friends and family for a dinner party. Get together, play cards or watch a movie. The energy that you put into your relationship and community builds the energy within your home and energizes both of you for a long, rich, and fulfilling life together. Don’t be a slacker, don’t be lazy.

3. Don’t be afraid to love.

Paul says we must love fearlessly, sincerely, and faithfully. Hold love in your hand like the treasure it it. Anticipate its needs before ever asked. He then puts us on guard, cautioning us to hate what is evil. How does Paul define evil? It is anything, Brandon and Rebecca that comes between the two of you, that limits your love.

How do you know when there is evil in your midst? Paul tells us to love what is good in each other. If you find yourself forgetting to love what is good, instead focusing on shortcomings and flaws, then evil is seeping into your home. If your heart is filled with resentment, refusal to forgive, hostility, criticality, and sarcasm, evil has arrived to destroy what you have built. Paul says, Hate those things and show them the door! Focus instead on the good that this man, this woman brings into your life. Love what is good; hate what is evil.

With God’s example and Paul’s guidance, we are gathered here today to establish with this marriage a new community and a brand new world. We do this because Rebecca and Brandon, you have successfully spent the last ten years of your life dangerously by loving and trusting each other fully.
Now, am I correct in understanding that you actually intend to persist in this endeavor? You want to live this dangerously for another 10 years and another 10 and another 10 after that until death do you part? Am I correct? Do you truly believe you’re up for it? If so, say loudly in front of all of us gathered here today, “Yes Ma’am!!”

Friends and family, you heard them. They said yes. So, here is my question to you. Are you willing to sit quietly by and let them do this? To live life so dangerously, that they put all of their emotional eggs in one vulnerable basket, to walk that precipice between life and love, hand in hand for the rest of their life? You’re willing to let them do that? If so, speak up loudly saying, “We are!”

Rebecca and Brandon, you heard them. They are in this game with you, 100%! I guess there’s nothing left to do now, except to get on with this wedding. Let’s do it! Amen!

A Bit About Lent

Luke 4:1-13

After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written,’Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

A Bit about Lent

When it comes to Lent, there are generally two camps.

In one camp are folks who do not do Lent. They don’t understand what it is, what it means, or what it entails. And they don’t care. They may connect it with Fat Tuesday and Mardi Gras, and they would be right.

In the other camp are folks who do Lent, i.e., they give up some kind of temptation in life, the most popular culprits being sloth, chocolate, or alcohol. They may know very little about Lent, but are interested and care. They believe that Lent is connected with self-imposed deprivation, and they would be right.

What I’d like to do is draw these two camps together and fill in some of the blank spaces.

Let’s start with the word, Lent. Where does the word come from? Let me clarify up front. It has nothing to do with God putting Jesus on loan to us or lending us a period of time for which to prepare for Good Friday and Easter. It has nothing to do with money or any sort of financial arrangements. Originally, Lent was not even called Lent. It was Quadragestima, Latin for fortieth. The mother tongue of the church at that time was Latin, and Quadragestima was used to count down the forty days stretching from Ash Wednesday to the beginning of Holy Week, the seven days prior to Easter Sunday.

Why are the dates of Ash Wednesday and Easter different year to year? Here we have a perfect example of the overlap of spiritual life and natural science. We start with the Easter date, then count backwards the weekdays to Ash Wednesday. How do we determine the Easter date? Easter falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

If you are unfamiliar with equinoxes, you are not alone. Equinoxes occur two times a year, once in the spring around March 20 and once in the fall, around September 22. At those times the sun hovers above the earth’s equator. Equinox literally means “equal night,” because the sun’s location creates a length of day and night that is nearly equal. Again, Easter falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring, that is the March 20 equinox. If the first full moon occurs on the equinox, Easter is the following Sunday. Thus, Easter can fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25. Once the Easter Sunday date is established, you count backwards 40 weekdays to the Wednesday. And the dates are set.

As the church grew across countries, priests adopted the mother tongue of the people to whom they preached. For example, the Old English word for spring was Lent. And Lent originated from the German word, Lenz for lengthening, as in the lengthening of days as winter transitions into spring. With time, Quadragestima became Lent.

Lent begins in the wilderness that is winter. It is devoted to renewal and strengthening. It is a solemn time. If you want to party, get it out of your system during Mardi Gras. and then settle down for forty days of fasting, prayer, and forgiveness. It is the time to prepare for Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, his subsequent arrest, torture, and execution. It is the time to become more spiritually close to God, to recognize our identity as his children and to build our emotional, psychological and spiritual strength in the face of temptation, trials and adversity. In some ways, it is a replay of the forty days and nights that Jesus spent in the wilderness tempted by Satan. That time of fasting, self-imposed deprivation and resisting of temptation prepared him to become more spiritually close to God, to recognize the strength of his identity as the son of God, and to build his emotional, psychological and spiritual muscle for what was to come.

There is a powerful prayer attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas and it goes like this, “Inscribe your Holy name, Oh Lord, upon my heart, there to remain so indelibly imprinted that no adversity, no prosperity can ever remove me from your love. Be unto me a tower of defense in danger, a light in the darkness, a comfort in distress and a faithful guide through this life filled with temptation and trials.”

St. Thomas Aquinas understood life and temptation, and he understood Lent. Lent prepares us for Good Friday, yes. Ultimately, it prepares us for life, and the trials and temptations we will surely encounter. May God give us a strong Lent to secure us in our baptismal identity, just as it did for our Christ Jesus in that dark night of Gethsemane’s despair.

Lenten Meditation

“With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of Joy, but no more of the old security. It is sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis.” C.S. Lewis, on his mother’s death when he was a child

The coroner likened my 7-year-old brother’s death to the flipping of a light switch. That was how quickly and easily his life ended on the pavement, run down by a drunk driver.

I was older than C. S. Lewis then, but not by much. Like him, the experience of death, so close, forever altered my perception of life. Life has indeed gone on to be much fun, holding many pleasures and stabs of Joy. But tranquility and reliability never returned. Maybe that is why we need Lent, with its focus on the reality and demands of death.

It strikes me that Lent with its disciplines and meditations is like a training regimen for some demanding life and death athletic contest. Here we are, running busy full lives, when Lent calls upon us to set aside weeks of preparation for that yearly plunge into the Good Friday experience of “grief . . . overwhelmed in terror.” Three days later, we make the remarkable high jump to the inexpressible stab of Easter Joy, only to be followed by a downhill climb, back to dark dangerous seas where we spend our days and nights broad jumping islands.

Getting to the grief and terror of Good Friday seems easier in years of failure, loss, parenting woes and worries. In happy eventful years, Easter joy is easier to reach, and I find myself avoiding the somber contemplative tasks of Lent. Funny, how we bring these things to the Lenten Table. And no wonder we need the training regimen orchestrated by our Church calendar if we are to do Lent and Life in a way that prepares us to go on after death shatters our settled happiness.

Lewis’s words hold a truth about death that none of us can escape. Death with no resurrection sinks our great Atlantis. It is Lent with its yearly leap from grief to resurrection that protects and propels us as we jump from island to island in the choppy seas of our lives. No, we cannot see Atlantis, but we can see Jesus.
He has died. He is risen. He is coming again.

O Lord, you are always with me. Strengthen me when I am alone and afraid, sustain me in grief, and gladden my heart with your presence. A-men

Ash Wednesday

What is Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. It is filled with symbolism, history, and significance for much of the Christian population.

It takes place on a Wednesday, 46 days before Easter.

Lent is the 40 days prior to Holy Week, the week leading up to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.

Ash Wednesday dates back to the ancient Jewish customs of fasting and clothing oneself in sackcloth and ashes in grief and repentance. Today Lent is a time of prayerful contemplation and preparation for the suffering and death of Jesus. The ashes are symbolic of the dust from which God created humans; the sign of the cross on the forehead symbolizes the manner of Christ’s death and his sacrifice for us. It is ultimately a sign of the life to death to life again cycle that marks us as Christ’s own forever. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Ashes also symbolize grief. On this day, we grieve the suffering we have caused and the suffering we ourselves have borne.

From the Book of Common Prayer comes this Ash Wednesday prayer:
Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence that we may remember that is is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

May your Ash Wednesday be a soulful beginning to a holy Lent.