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Holy Week

In our scripture reading this past Sunday, Jesus asked some of his disciples to “go and make preparations” for the Passover feast. We don’t know what all they had to do, but I imagine they had to buy bread, wine, lamb meat and bitter herbs. They had to set the table and sweep the floors. And I’m sure they got all the details in order and were physically prepared for the night. But I wonder…were they spiritually prepared for what was about to happen?

When they all sat down to share that ritual dinner together, Jesus broke the bread and shared the cup but surprised them with new words: “This is my body” and “this is my blood.” The events that followed–his betrayal, arrest, crucifixion and resurrection–seem to have come as a total surprise to his disciples.

For the past forty days, we have been in a season of “preparation” for Good Friday and Easter. In this season of Lent, some of you have practiced self-denial by giving up certain things or foods or habits. Some have taken on new practices like centering prayer or a Lenten prayer group. And the whole point behind it all has been to get ourselves ready, to acknowledge our own sin and brokenness and to prepare ourselves to receive God’s amazing grace at Easter.

As much as we try to prepare, though, I wonder if we are more like the disciples than we want to admit. Jesus had told them several times that he was going to be arrested and crucified and after three days would rise again, but they hadn’t been paying attention. They were still not ready. It still came as a surprise.

Honestly, I find their lack of awareness oddly comforting. Even though I’ve had forty days to prepare for Good Friday and Easter, I’m still not ready. Like those disciples preparing the Passover meal, I’m physically prepared. We’re working on bulletins and logistics, and I’m studying for the Easter sermon. We’ve talked through details of signage and parking for the crowds who will come on Sunday morning. But am I spiritually ready? Probably not. After all, what can we possibly do to get ready for the life-changing mystery and power of Easter morning?

One thing we can do is to give ourselves over to this story. We can show up on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday–even if we screech into the parking lot after a full and crazy day–and allow ourselves to be present with Christ. Then show up again on Easter morning and see what happens. Remember, the disciples were not at all prepared for what happened all those years ago. They were just there, and God did the rest. They were totally surprised.

As we gather together this weekend, on Thursday, Friday and Sunday, may we, too, find ourselves totally, mysteriously, powerfully and amazingly surprised!

 

Once a month…

Once a month I go and see a spiritual director. If you’re not familiar with what a spiritual director is, he or she is someone whose role it is to listen with you for the movement of the Holy Spirit in your life. It’s a simple practice really. No bells and whistles. Just intentional presence and careful, holy listening. I started this practice a few months before my renewal leave last year, as a way of preparing myself and making space in my life to listen to God, and it has been a tremendous gift to me. Once I returned from my leave, I knew that I wanted to continue.

When I walk into my spiritual director’s office each month, I have no plans for what we’re going to talk about. Or, if I do have plans, they always change. I never know what’s going to be stirred up in our conversation. We usually start by lighting a candle and then sitting in silence until I’m ready to speak. Initially I’ll ramble into some subject or other, and then he asks a question or two. It’s amazing how one simple question, posed without judgment or expectation, can open up my heart to hear God. Suddenly we’re talking about something else, something deeper, something closer to my heart than I’d realized. It’s not like he instructs me or advises me or tells me new things. All he does is pay attention and ask a question, and inevitably I end up seeing something in myself that I had forgotten was there. I end up hearing the still, small voice of God that had been whispering within me all along.

One afternoon as I sat in his office waiting for him, I turned around and saw an icon that I’d never noticed before. It was an image of the face of Jesus, and something about it gripped me. I haven’t used many icons in my prayer life, but when I saw this one I knew I wanted to spend more time with it. When he came back into his office, I asked him about it. Turns out, it is the oldest image of Jesus that we have, painted in Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai.

One thing I love about this icon is that Jesus’ face is different on each side. One half of  ghis face is painted to represent his divine nature, the other half is painted to represent his human nature. My spiritual director also suggested that one eye looks upon us with judgment, the other with grace. His gaze is piercing and loving at the same time. It is a holy and striking image, inviting us, as icons do, to gaze upon it as a window into prayer.

As we wrap up Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount this coming Sunday, we may be feeling the heaviness of the demands within it. We may feel the judging eye of Jesus upon us as we recognize our own weakness and inability to live up to these teachings.

But gazing upon us is also the loving eye of Christ, the one who came to save us because we cannot save ourselves. Yes, we are called to respond to God’s love with our very best. We are invited to choose the “narrow gate” and live a disciplined, holy life. But we will fall. We will sin. We will slip off that path again and again. That’s why we need Jesus Christ, because we cannot do it ourselves. Remember, we are “poor in spirit.”

As we move closer to the cross together, let us remember why we need it: we cannot achieve a holy life on our own. Only God’s grace can make us whole. Let us find ways in these last days of Lent, to gaze upon the face of Christ and prepare to witness again all he has done for us.

 

Community

My son Tate is going through confirmation this year, and I am enjoying walking through this experience with him as a parent. This past Saturday, I went with him and ten other confirmands and their mentors to serve dinner and join in worship at Sixty-first Avenue United Methodist Church. (By the way, these eleven confirmands made up about half of our confirmation class. We have a total of twenty-four!)

Sixty-first Avenue UMC is located in north Nashville, about a mile from Riverbend prison, where our congregation is deeply involved in ministry. It is an industrial neighborhood, with a lot of folks living close to or below the poverty line. The church is a beacon of light and hope in that neighborhood, offering after-school tutoring, an extensive “Last-Minute Toy Store” at Christmas time, and lots of other ministries that offer food, shelter, clothing and love to folks in the neighborhood.

On Saturday evenings, the congregation serves a free meal to anyone who wants to come. Then they gather for Bible study before going into worship at 6:00. Our confirmation class prepared and served the meal this past Saturday, and then joined the congregation for Bible study and worship. As I leaned in and listened to the Bible study, I saw something else that that congregation offers to their neighbors: loving community.

Pastor Paul Slentz led the Bible study, and he invited us to read Romans 6 together. (Take a moment right now, if you’d like, and read it to yourself. It’s not long.) He then asked the question, “What are some things we might need to ‘die to’ in our lives, in order to follow Christ? What things might we need to turn away from?” The first person who responded said, “Drugs.” Wow. I was inspired by her openness and vulnerability.

And I realized right then that this was a safe, loving and honest community, not just for the folks in the neighborhood but for all of us. This was a community where we could name out loud, in the company of other imperfect people, our deepest struggles and brokenness. This congregation was modeling for all of us–especially our young sixth-graders–how to be a loving forgiving community and how to rely on God for everything.

As you know, this is the season of Lent. We are entering the third week of our journey toward the cross, this journey of examination of our own souls. If you’re like me, you’ve come across a few things in your life that are broken, a few places where you need healing and redemption and forgiveness. My prayer is that we can all find people within this congregation who can hear our brokenness and love us through it. Maybe it’s a Lenten Small Group. Maybe it’s a Sunday School class, or the Men’s Dialogue Group. Maybe it’s just a special friend that you have coffee with. But this journey of Lent is one that we are called to walk together. May we find ways to offer loving community to one another during this season and always.

 

Lenten Retreat Re-cap

As hard as it is to miss a Sunday morning at 508 Franklin Road, it was wonderful to spend this past Sunday morning on Monteagle Mountain with a group of twenty-seven folks from our church. We had spent two days together talking about prayer, practicing different ways of praying and sharing our experiences together.

This Lenten Prayer Retreat was an idea that grew out of my renewal leave this fall. When I applied for the Clergy Renewal Grant from the Lilly Foundation, one of the questions on the application was, “How are you going to help the congregation connect with your renewal experience?” As I pondered that question, I thought, “Why not have a prayer retreat when I get back? And why not do it on the first weekend of Lent?” A great idea! But since only a handful of people can actually go on a retreat on a given weekend, I wanted to share with you some of what we learned and experienced together on the mountain.

When we arrived on Friday evening, we spent some time talking about our expectations for the weekend. Our reasons varied: to learn more about prayer, to carve out more time for prayer, to reclaim a discipline of prayer or just to have some time away with God. Throughout the weekend we practiced different ways of praying: silence, centering prayer, meditating on Scripture, contemplating icons and art, listening to music, drawing, writing, walking, using our bodies and reading poetry. The list goes on and on. Not every practice works for everybody, but praying in new ways can help open new windows to experience God’s love.

As we tried out these different ways of praying, though, one thing became clear: There is no magic formula that “gets us to God.” There is, as my son so wisely said in his children’s message the other day, “There is no wrong way to pray.” We don’t have to do spiritual gymnastics to commune with God or to have a prayer connection like “other people” do. God reaches out to all of us all the time. Communion with God is ours every day, in every place and every circumstance. Prayer practices merely help to open us and awaken us to that truth.

In my own prayer life, I have often fallen into the trap of telling myself, “If I could just find the right prayer technique, I will feel God more strongly. If I just pray the right way—longer, more often, more deeply—I will experience what other people experience in prayer. In fact, when I left on my renewal leave last fall, I was telling myself, “If I could just get to Iona, I know God will be there in ways that I’ve never experienced.” As if I had to go to a remote island to find God. What I was reminded of is that the God who met me in Iona is the same God who meets me in my kitchen every day. And, what’s more, I don’t have to “go find God.” God is always with me. Everywhere. All around me and within me. Always.

We affirmed that truth on the prayer retreat this weekend. Yes, our prayer practice is important. We need to stop, to listen to seek God every day. May all of us find ways to make ourselves available to God so that we can be reminded of the simple truth that God is always with us.

Season of Lent

The season of Lent has begun. As we gather for worship on Ash Wednesday, we begin our forty-day journey toward Good Friday and Easter. As you may or may not know, Easter was the first holy day celebrated by Christians. (We might think it would be Christmas, but it was actually Easter.) And in the early days of the church, the forty days of Lent developed as a season of self-examination to help Christians prepare for the powerful news of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.

In many ways the season of Lent is a gift to us. An invitation to go deeper in our life with Christ. What does Lent mean to you? How do you walk through these forty days of preparation? Do you give up something–like sweets or Tweets? Do you take on a new practice like driving the speed limit or reading the Bible every day?

To be honest, many of us (including me) often see Lent as an opportunity to break a bad habit or to start a good one. We take the forty days as a “trial run,” giving up something that we know we should probably give up anyway. Or, we take on a practice to which we really should commit all year round, but we choose to give it only forty days. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But what often happens is that we make Lent about us and not about Jesus. It becomes a “self-help” season  instead of a season when we recognize our helplessness and turn to God.

In another sense, though, Lent is about us. It is a season that calls us to deep self-examination. We are invited to look into our hearts and into our daily lives in order to recognize our sin and our need for God. Ash Wednesday confronts us right off the bat with our sin, our mortality and our brokenness. We are reminded, as we begin the journey of Lent, that we are utterly dependent on God’s grace. Then, we step into Lent committed to confronting our need each and every day.

One of the things I’m going to do this year during Lent as a way of acknowledging my need for God is to practice the prayer of examen, an ancient way of praying that helps us examine our lives each and every day. Here’s how it works: At the end of each day, take a few moments to review the day and ask yourself, “Where did I experience God’s love today? When did I show God’s love and mercy?” After reflecting for a few moments, turn to a harder question: “When did I turn away from God today? When was I an obstacle to mercy and love? What might God have wanted me to do differently today?” I think I’ll use a journal to help me reflect on these questions, but you could just ask them of yourself as you get under the covers each night to go to sleep.

This prayer practice on the surface seems very self-focused but in practice turns us toward God. It helps us to reflect on our daily lives and to be aware of God’s presence with us all the time. If you’re looking for a way to mark the season of Lent this year, join me in practicing the prayer of examen. And let’s keep each other posted on what we’re learning.

 

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