Friday, March 2, 2012

The Sacred Rhythms of Lent

Won't you take this journey?
Today's post is unusual. It's extremely long and it is - essentially - a sermon. But I'm posting it because many people have requested my notes from the message I shared at the meeting of the Presbytery of Tampa Bay last weekend. However, I believe it's worth the read anyway, because the message staked out my thinking behind the following two things:
  1. Why I believe Lent is a discipline worth the effort.
  2. Why I wrote "Reaching Toward Easter."
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” – John 18:33-36
Several years ago, during the first “No General-Assembly” void after the Presbyterian Church's decision to go to an every-other-year schedule, Rebekah and I flew to SnowBird in Utah to attend a conference for clergy and spouses. It was advertised as a “Pastor’s Sabbath” retreat. Some of you may have been there. It was almost comical to walk around the huge auditorium and witness literally hundreds of Presbyterian ministers gathered together – as usual – but this time with:
  • No ax to grind
  • No issues to fight over
  • No lobbying to be accomplished
  • No people with wrong ideas to set straight
  • No-one to argue with over some pointless detail of procedural minutia.
It was a beautiful thing. We had a who’s who of luminary speakers bringing the message at worship - including James Forbes, Barbara Brown Taylor and Tony Campallo. Then, each morning, theologian Walter Brueggeman laid out the biblical foundation for the retreat and introduced me to the Hebrew word “nephesh”, which – essentially - means refreshment, or “The health of the human soul.” Simply put, the healthy soul requires:
  • Rest
  • Reconstitution
  • Refreshment
  • Replenishment
  • Renewal
  • Renovation
  • Rhythm… Yes, rhythm.

RHYTHM: If we look at the creation narratives at the beginning of Genesis, we can see that God created, and then rested. If we examine the organization of time and seasons, we can observe Winter, followed by Spring, Summer, and Fall before repeating the cycle again. There is a rhythm to life that was designed and ordained by the very hand of the Creator. And we understand that we are functionally compromised to the extent that we fail to find that balance in our daily lives. The very Earth itself suffers and decays when it falls out of synch with the cycles of rain, sun, winter, summer, rest and renewal. Listen to what Paul said in Romans 8:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now - and not only the creation, but we ourselves…
We long for this sacred rhythm, this alignment with the intention of our Creator… and creation longs for us – in the words of today’s teens – to “Get it…” Jesus expresses the idea wonderfully in Eugene Peterson’s translation of Matthew 11: 28-29:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.”
CHURCH YEAR: Sacred Rhythm is one reason I have come to appreciate the ecclesiastical calendar and the patterns of the church year so much. The liturgical year is an opportunity to learn those unforced rhythms of grace… There is a sense of blessed cadence to a timetable:
  • that includes a season of Advent expectancy to prepare us for Christmas
  • that pauses to turn our thoughts to ideas such as Epiphany, Pentecost and Ordinary Time
  • and that encourages the observance of Lent so that we don’t stumble onto Easter unprepared.
SEVERELY PROTESTANT! I don’t know about any of you, but I grew up not just Protestant, but what I like to call SEVERELY Protestant. “Severely Protestant” – in my remembering – meant that we were so distinctly NOT CATHOLIC that the pendulum had swung as far as it possibly could in the other direction. Not just Not-Catholic, when I was growing up, but very much NOT Church of England. The problem with that approach, however – other than being markedly un-ecumenical - is the tendency to throw away perfectly good ideas as part of the package.
  • No Pope?
  • No ritual?
  • No liturgy?
  • No stained glass?
  • No vestments?
  • No liturgical year?
  • No liturgical gear?
  • No routines of grace?
  • No… familiar pathways taking us to familiar places?
I grew up so strategically NOT so many things that I completely missed out on some of the beauty and the spiritual practice, the meter, the cadence – the sacred rhythm – of ideas such as Advent and ordinary time, and Lent.

Lent - it's a journey we all need to take
STORY: My brother, Geoff (there are two years between us) is struggling hard with the late stages of cancer. Last November, when things were not quite so bad, we had this conversation about spiritual “thin” places. You know, those times and-or locations where it simply seems easier to connect with God.
Sometimes it’s a particular place like the Montreat Conference Center, or Camp CedarKirk, or every time you walk close to the ocean… or maybe where you worship every week... For me, recently, it was the top of Mount Sinai.

And then sometimes the "thin place" is a particular time, such as summer camp or retreats, or a connection you always seem to make – wherever you are – when the candlelight is passed on Christmas Eve.

My brother told me he’d heard that Assisi, where St. Francis lived and worked, is a thin place - and he said that he’d always wanted to go there. So two weeks later, when I was visiting our son in Tuscany (long story….) Andrew and I went to Assisi, and there I lit a candle in the chapel and I prayed for my brother. I bought home a small St. Francis statue, which I gave to Geoff along with a picture of the lit candle, when I shared the story of that day.

Here’s where I’m going with this. I would never have done something like that – could never have done - if I had still been so SEVERELY Protestant.

But I understand now that spiritual meaning can reside in both form and ritual… …and especially in deliberation and practice… … and I also understand how much help I need when it comes to plotting my own journey.

And that, my friends, is the whole point of this REACHING TOWARD EASTER initiative. Over the past few years I began to realize that I was always running into Holy Week without the slightest element of preparation. Easter would just sneak up on me:
  • One Sunday I'd walk into church and a bunch of wild preschoolers would parade into the sanctuary waving palm branches, bludgeoning people sitting too close to the aisles and knocking the candles off the communion table…
  • …And then there would be the severe impact of Holy week services, more bedlam with the Saturday egg hunt, and an extra few hundred people I barely recognized in church for Easter Sunday.
So – a couple of years ago – I made the decision to write a short devotional thought each day during Lent, and simply pay attention to where God was leading.

WOW! What a difference. For the first time in my life I arrived at Palm Sunday already having been somewhere with Jesus. Imagine arriving at Holy Week already having been somewhere with Jesus….

Holy Week took on a whole new meaning because I was intimately caught up in the Passion of the same Christ who I had followed so closely from day-to-day. Beginning on Ash Wednesday. And then – and this is what sealed the future of the idea so far as I was concerned, Resurrection Sunday came around and I understood clearly that Easter wasn’t the conclusion of anything at all but an invitation to live as a New Creation in Christ! - An invitation to live as a New Creation!!

FULL CIRCLE:Back to my brother Geoff's story. One of the things I’m learning with my brother is a new working definition of what it means to be whole:
  • We can be more alive… even when our bodies betray us and begin to break down
  • We can be at peace… even when the world around us is the very definition of conflict and war
  • We can be refreshed... even when the circumstances of our lives make relaxation appear to be an impossible dream…
This is why a daily commitment to journey through Lent with Jesus as our companion is such a critically important decision for each one of us to consider. What was is that Jesus said to his tormentors…?
“As it is, my kingdom is not from here…”
To engage Lent on Christ’s terms is to enter into a Kingdom frame of reference that will accomplish everything the world is incapable of providing:
  • Peace... Compassion
  • Refreshment... Regeneration
  • Rejuvenation... Unity
  • Rest... Humility
  • Rhythm... Cooperation
  • Renovation... Reconciliation
  • Restoration... Community
  • Replenishment... the mind of Christ
  • …”Nephesh”
To align ourselves with the Sacred Rhythm that God knit into the very fabric of our DNA from before the foundations of time.
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
I’m going to close with one paragraph from page 16 of REACHING TOWARD EASTER:
  • "This journey together through Lent serves as an invitation to align the heart of our spiritual nature with the regenerative heart of God, sustainer and deliverer, to set our intention toward life and to align ourselves with the light…”
“But as it us,” Jesus said, “My kingdom is not from here.”

My invitation to take the journey
PRAYER: Generous and most gracious God, rest on us here as we consider how to respond to your invitation to journey with you, day by day, into a transformational Easter experience.We understand that your kingdom is not from here. But we also know that your invitation is – always – “Come.” Oh Lamb of God, I come… we come. Amen.

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