Old Dogs and New Tricks

There’s an old saying to which most of us can relate. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” As much as I want to consider myself a rather youngish old dog, I have to admit that even I can relate. Not that I swallow it hook, line, and sinker; but I have to admit that the hesitance I see in myself and my peers when it comes to learning new things, does indeed make us look bad.

Before I go further with this line of thought, however, let’s look at the readings for today, the fifth Sunday in Lent.

Isaiah 43:16-21
Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honour me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.

Philippians 3:4b-14
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

John 12:1-8
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Our Meditation for today

Now, back to teaching old dogs new tricks. . . I am not convinced that those of us in the second half of life are incapable of learning new tricks, contrary to what younger folks might think. It’s not so much that we can’t learn new tricks. It’s just that we don’t want to learn new tricks. We simply don’t want to take the time and trouble necessary, or even the risks involved. You see, what if we truly do want to learn a new trick and find that we can’t? Now, that would be a catastrophe, right? In order to avoid such a risk, we’d best not try. Hence, we give the impression that we cannot learn new things. It happens all the time, which doesn’t mean it is the right or healthy thing to do. Our readings today make that painfully evident.

Isaiah reminded his readers of old tricks God did that were a major part of their history, the escape from captivity in Egypt. Then Isaiah told them that God was getting ready to do some new tricks, and they best learn them now, rather than dwelling in the past, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

This week we celebrate not only the fifth week of Lent. We also celebrate the life of St. Patrick. St. Patrick was certainly an individual who had to learn new tricks. Kidnapped when he was a teenager by pirates, he was taken to Ireland and sold as a slave. He worked as a shepherd and a farm hand. These were new skills for him, as he’d been raised in a family of means. He also learned about getting along with the Irish people. He learned the ways of the land, the language, and the customs.

He also learned that if he were going to keep his connection with God, he would need to pray daily. Every day he prayed and it gave him time not only to talk to God but to listen for what new thing God would want him to learn. Every day, he heard God’s message, “The sea awaits you. The sea awaits you.” Then the day came that changed everything, “Your ship awaits you. It’s time.” Patrick perceived God’s direction. God made a path through the wilderness for young Patrick who walked it two hundred miles to the sea. There, he boarded a ship that took him back to England, where his family embraced their long lost son. Patrick re-acclimated to life in England. He went to school, continued his relationship with God, and became a cleric himself.

He never stopped praying daily. He never stopped listening for the next new thing God had in mind. It came, “It’s time to look ahead. I have a new thing for you, Patrick. Go back to Ireland.”

Patrick followed the path God made for him once again through the wilderness back to Ireland, this time not as a slave; not as a farm hand or shepherd. This time he went as a missionary. He perceived in new ways, conventional and un-conventional what God wanted him to learn. This time, it was to convert the entire country to its own unique brand of the Irish Catholic faith, a brand new trick. Patrick mastered the trick because he was not distracted with his past as a slave. He had long forgiven the pirates and his slave owners. He carried no old grudges. He put the sins of the past behind him and strained forward to do the new thing God called him to do.

God knows that if we’re not careful, we can become preoccupied with things of the old, with people we haven’t forgiven, old grudges we continue to carry. We can become preoccupied with sins we’ve committed, for which we have never forgiven ourselves. We can become preoccupied with things we no longer have. We can worry about what others think of us and worry what is to come. And so we keep ourselves in the old times. Isaiah says, don’t do that. There’s a new thing coming that is calling us to learn new tricks, new perspectives. It’s time to walk in the new way.

Paul, in his letter to the Philippians considered how people evaluate themselves and others. The old way was using standards like possessions, money, prestige, success. Or as in Paul’s case, how much money and possessions he had lost, or how many times he had been arrested, beaten and imprisoned. Paul had learned from God the new way for evaluating behavior, decisions and life. For Paul there was only goal now, one standard by which to evaluate life and that was to be called by Jesus as his own.

Before Paul, there was Jesus, the number one trickster in town, always flaunting a new way, a new perspective on life, the never ending challenge to think anew. Jesus is sitting at the table in the home of his beloved friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany. This is same home where Mary listened at the feet of Jesus, leaving her sister to all the preparations for dinner. This is the same Lazarus Jesus had raised from the dead. Some of Jesus’s most powerful and intimate moments happened in this family home. In today’s reading, we witness it again.

His hosts have cleaned, cooked and set the table so that when Jesus and his disciples arrive, all is in readiness. As they sit for dinner, Mary quietly slips into another room and brings back a flask of an exquisite expensive essential oil from the flower of the Nard.

You may not be familiar with Nard. Nard is a flower of the valerian family. Valerian is an ancient herbal healing remedy still used today in many ointments, supplements, oils and pharmacology. It is an herbal ointment used to sooth the body, heart and mind, and as Jesus reminded them, to anoint the dead at burial.

I doubt that Mary thought about the essential oil of Nard as a burial anointment. I am confident that when she bought the perfume, she made her decision to spend a year’s wage out of love. Not money, prestige, or status. It was love. She’d learned a new way of making decisions. Her new standard for behavior and decisions was a loving commitment to Jesus, to be called by him to be his own.

In the moment she opened the flask and generously poured the priceless potion over his feet, the aroma of love filled the room. She gently cleaned the dust and dirt from his feet, massaging the healing soothing essential oil into the dried and cracked skin. Then she loosened her hair to wipe the excess oil from his feet, so that now her hair gleamed and carried the scent of the perfume. All sat in silence, stunned and moved by the ritual of love.

Then the spell was broken. Judas with his old way of evaluating life decisions harshly criticized Mary. He could not comprehend her perspective. He had not turned his face forward to the new way.

Immediately, Jesus corrected him, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Jesus had called Mary to be his own, and out of that love, Mary of Bethany had attained the goal by which she would be known through the ages. She had learned the new way; she perceived it, indeed.

We have one more week of lent to turn our face to Jerusalem, to witness and experience the way through the wilderness that God prepared for Jesus and for us to walk.

Once we arrive in Jerusalem one week from today, Palm Sunday, it will be time with Jesus to turn our face to Golgotha. He will want us to strain forward just a bit, to find a new way through the wilderness of our life and death to the cross. He will want us to perceive something new this time around.

Walk in prayer. Listen. Smell the oil of the Nard. Drink the living waters that God has prepared. Forget the old ways, what lies behind; instead strain forward to the goal for the only prize of any value: the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Trust this, and you can learn any new trick God has up his sleeve.

Water Water Everywhere

2012PhotoShootwithErica_003-92x136What exactly is Jesus suggesting in John 37 and 38 when he says “If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”

Let’s put the verse into context. Jesus had slipped quietly into Jerusalem hoping to enjoy some of the Festival of Tabernacles excitement. Not surprisingly, he couldn’t pull off anything resembling anonymity. He found himself instead in the Temple teaching, and saying things like, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” That certainly got the attention of the very people plotting his death! That is also when he identified his own heart as the source of rivers of living waters. Which brings me back to my question, what is Jesus suggesting here?

I have tried to visualize what Jesus is asking of us. I understand the symbolism of water. Water was the primal ingredient of our existence over which the Holy Spirit moved at the beginning of creation. It was the medium through which Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit. It is how in baptism we share in the burial and resurrection of Christ, and how we are reborn, cleansed, and made precious in the sight of God.

It is the same water Jesus offered to believers in our scripture for today. When they came to him thirsty for the water pouring from his heart, they would be filled with it. They would become rivers of living waters from which the next generation of thirsty believers quenched their thirst, generation after generation of rivers and tributaries weaving their way through mountains and valleys of centuries even now to this time, to this place.

A beautiful image, is it not? Well, actually, from the perspective of this Texas woman, maybe not so much. It is why I have trouble visualizing what Jesus is asking of us. We know rivers here in Texas. They are moody and unpredictable. Their water levels go up and down with equally moody weather and rain patterns. We are familiar with long periods of drought followed by torrential downpours that turn dry creek beds into rampaging, swollen rivers of destruction.

So while I am inspired to be a vessel, a conduit for the living waters of Christ, I am not particularly comfortable with the analogy of the river. Like Texas rivers that run dry during drought, so can our lives. Pain, illness, loss, and fear leave us parched, feeling too tired, too sick to be there for others. Our rivers slow to a trickle as they dry into dusty creek beds. Sometimes our rivers flood out of their banks, and we find ourselves pushy, intolerant, disrespectful of others’ boundaries, hurting instead of quenching the world’s thirst for understanding, love and compassion.

As I think about Jesus’ invitation and admonition in this season of Lent, I hope it will be all right if, instead of a river, He might let me be a golden jar like the ones in our scripture. As part of the Feast of the Tabernacle rite, golden jars were filled with healing waters from the Pool of Siloam and carried to the temple on the last day of the Feast. The rite symbolized appreciation for the miraculous life-saving water gushing from the stone in the wilderness and a yearning for the coming of the Messiah. Yes, I want to be a golden jar like one of those, carrying just the right amount of water to quench thirst, cleanse wounds, and soothe the despair of drought.

I like the idea of being one of Jesus’ prized and costly golden jars. When we are a jar, we don’t have to worry about unpredictable river waters. Jesus keeps us filled to just the right level, the droughts and storms of our life, notwithstanding. He never makes the jar so heavy that we fall under its weight. And even when we think it is empty, and we are dried away, Jesus touches us with a drop of that living water as a reminder to look to Him where we will find more of the same, where there is plenty for us and for others.

Yes, a golden jar is more my speed these days. Besides, I do love gold and the way it sparkles in the light of the Son.

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.

The Epiphany Equation

Readings for the Epiphany Season

How priceless is your love, O God!
In times of trouble we take refuge under the shadow of your wings.
We feast on your abundance and drink from the river of your delights.
Bless our Epiphany with your light,
that we may see the signs of your never ending love
and loving-kindness.

Isaiah 62:1-5
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the LORD will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the LORD delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.

Psalm 36:5-10

5 Your love, O LORD, reaches to the heavens, *
and your faithfulness to the clouds.
6 Your righteousness is like the strong mountains,
your justice like the great deep; *
you save both man and beast, O LORD.
7 How priceless is your love, O God! *
your people take refuge under the shadow of your wings.
8 They feast upon the abundance of your house; *
you give them drink from the river of your delights.
9 For with you is the well of life, *
and in your light we see light.
10 Continue your loving-kindness to those who know you, *
and your favor to those who are true of heart.

John 2:1-11
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.”

So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

January 17, 2016

Welcome to Epiphany! That amazing season of light, signs and insights, messages and meanings and we don’t have to do a thing to make it happen! This is the season where God does the work and we get the goodies! No baking and cooking, entertaining and being entertained, cleaning and decorating, shopping and wrapping, just waiting on God, the first half of the Epiphany Equation. I particularly appreciate the first half of this equation after the labor intensive Christmas I had this year.

However, before we consider ourselves off the hook entirely, let us consider the second half of the Epiphany Equation. Here, we are called to be open to signs, to recognize them when they appear, wait patiently for insights, and allow the message to surface with time and guide our next steps. That’s it. Easy, right? Well maybe the “patiently” piece might be a bit difficult, but let’s go on.

Epiphany begins January 6, one day after the 12th day of Christmas. On that day, we celebrate the popular Epiphany story, the visit of the three magi to the crib of baby Jesus.

Three gentlemen from somewhere in the Middle East received a sign. It was a star. They recognized the significance of its appearance and were of the mind to investigate and determine its meaning. They got the message: a King had been born in a distant land. They allowed the message to guide their next steps. They packed their bags along with expensive kingly gifts and headed out in the direction their studies indicated as the path of the star. They did not stop until they found the child with his mother and paid homage to the newborn king.

With time, more meanings surface, relevant to you and me. For example, anybody could have seen the star but it wasn’t a priestly Levite or Pharisee who made the journey to the crib. It wasn’t even a local from Bethlehem. It was three scientists, unclean Gentiles from an entirely different culture, a foreign country, an alien world as far as the Jews were concerned. We have come to understand this as a sign that Jesus was a king for all people. He came not for just the Jews, or a few elevated religious leaders. He came for all people, regardless of age, background, profession, ethnicity, religion, or lifestyle. As such, we too are called to love all God’s people, without regard to old divisions.

Another popular Epiphany tale is the story of Jesus’ baptism. Here Jesus has trekked into the wilderness to see the charismatic teacher dressed in skins and living off the land. John the Baptist, his cousin had made a name for himself by his lifestyle and fearless attack on those of casual shallow faith. He was undaunted by class or status. He took on the lowly and the highest, peasants to kings. Bad move on that last one; but that’s another story for another time. Jesus goes to John the Baptist to be baptized and John reluctantly cooperates. But the baptism does not go quietly. Hovering above Jesus standing in the water was a rumbling presence that split the clouds above his head, and the Spirit of God descended like a dove. From the distant sky resonated a voice, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” It was a sign that the man standing in the Jordan with John the Baptist was not just another curious fan. This was a King. This was the Son of God and God was pleased with him, very pleased. He tells us to pay attention to him and the world Has never been able to ignore Jesus.

With time, we have come to understand more. We note that Jesus was baptized like everyone else. Obviously, he did not need to be baptized. He was perfect, blameless, already the Son of God. Why bother taking a long dusty trip into the wilderness only to wade into the Jordan? Not necessary! Or was it? Jesus was making it clear that he was not only God but also human. He called upon his followers to be baptized and to believe; so that is exactly what he did. Everything Jesus calls us to do, he did. Every step that you and I take, Jesus took. Every pain, every loss, every disappointment we endure, he endured. It is how Jesus knows and loves us so intimately. He knows what it is to be human.

In our reading for today, we have another Epiphany story. We find ourselves at a wedding celebration, the ultimate sign of love and intimacy, hopes and dreams for a future yet to be lived. Jesus was there with his mother and friends. When the wine ran out, the servants came to Mary with the bad news. Mary took it to Jesus who in abrupt fashion reminded her that it was none of their business and besides, it wasn’t in his plans for the night to do anything about it. Without looking at Jesus, Mary turned to the servants with instructions, Do what my son tells you to do. Jesus got the message. It was time to change his plans. He tells the servants to fill the jars with water, then dip a cup and take it to the steward. I wonder if they understood at some level that a sign of great significance was about to be manifested in their presence. They did what Jesus commanded.

In that moment, Jesus created an amazing wine, a new wine. It was a miracle in its own right, a sign that God had entered the scene. It was also a sign of things to come. At the Passover meal before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus again took wine, blessed it; and created a new and magical wine. This is my body. This is my blood. Take eat. Take drink. Do this in the remembrance of me. And we do, on any given Sunday in every Christian church around the world.

I ask you to consider for a moment, was the miracle at that wedding in Cana or around the table in the Upper Room any greater than the miracle of the Eucharistic feast in your church this weekend?

In communion, we are invited to a kingly meal. Starting with simple bread and wine, the priest calls upon God to make this food holy, “Sanctify this bread and wine by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in Him.”

At that moment, like a dove descending, the Holy Spirit fills the room transforming the bread and wine into the bread of life and the cup of salvation. As you take it in, coursing through your body is the body and blood of Christ. He is bone of your bone and blood of your blood. He lives within you and strengthens you. He blesses you with new and unending life in his arms. And he loves you with an intimacy that only a most powerful God can give.

And that my friends is the Epiphany Equation in its entirety: a Sign given to us by God, with enough light to see it, experience it, and pull from it meanings for life; a sign that gives us enough strength and courage to take whatever steps life has in store for us. It’s not under our control. It is not something we produce. It is something that God provides. The rest is up to us.
This is Epiphany.