Living Lent Gently

lent

Henry Nouwen, a Dutch Roman Catholic Priest and Theologian wrote, “Lent is the most important time of the year to nurture our inner life. It is the time in which we not only prepare ourselves to celebrate the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also the death and resurrection that constantly takes place within us…When we live Lent attentively and gently, then Easter can truly be a celebration during which the full proclamation of the risen Christ will reverberate into the deepest place of our being.”

I believe that he is correct. To fail to observe Lent or to fail to attend all of Holy Week is like walking in toward the end of a movie and then wondering why you did not find it as moving as those who saw it all. Thus the Church is wise to call us to the observance of a Holy Lent. As followers of Christ we join Him in His 40 days in the wilderness and confront our own temptations. Sharing in His victory over temptations these 40 days makes His ultimate victory over death taste even sweeter

Particularly for those who may be new to this tradition, allow me to explain some of the details of this penitential season. Traditionally there are three major ways that we observe Lent, taken from Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel according to St. Matthew. The three ways of observing Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Not in all three of these Jesus did not say “If” rather He said, “When you pray…When you fast….When you give.”

One way to think of the benefit of these three is by seeing them as weapons to fight against our three major enemies, which are the world, the flesh and the devil. Older liturgies even described this season as Christian warfare.

Prayer as a weapon. English preacher Samuel Chadwick said that when we pray the devil trembles. He trembles because it is through prayer that we undo his works. When we pray “Thy kingdom come” we are praying for an invasion against the gates of hell, which Jesus said would not be able to prevail against us.

Fasting as a weapon. When we fast we confront our flesh. But we have to be careful here and not become dualists. God made our bodies and they are to be used as temples of the Holy Spirit, so our bodies are not the enemy nor are they evil. When St. Paul speaks of not walking in the flesh by “flesh” what he is referring to is that two-year old brat that lives inside of me, demanding to have his own way. Fasting is a way to say very loudly to the brat “NO!”

Giving as a weapon. Almsgiving confronts the pull of the world that demands that we watch out for number one and that fears that if we are generous then we be without. The world gives us a thousand reasons to walk past the man beaten by robbers but through almsgiving we become the Good Samaritan.

It’s very important to understand that these disciplines are means to a goal and not the goal in themselves. We are not trying to build up brownie points so that God will like us more. Rather we are confessing that we are not where we need to be, that in part we have wandered away and we use this season and these disciplines to make our way home. It is the returning that Prophets called out for. We are saying, as the beautiful hymn puts it, “Prone to wander Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart so take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.” In saying “NO” to the world, the flesh and the devil we are saying “YES” to the Lord and offering Him our hearts.

We begin this season through repentance and ashes. Again we are not trying to earn favor rather we are simply admitting who we are. As we say weekly in the confession, we are admitting that we have not loved God with our whole hearts and we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. And for this we seek the Lord’sabsolution, because as Frederick Beuchner put it, we can no more absolve ourselves than we can sit in our own laps. Additionally the ashes remind us that we are mortal and so we should not put off our repentance until tomorrow because we may not have  tomorrow.

I really like that Henry Nouwen said that we should keep Lent attentively and gently. The word “gently” brings it into proper focus. Gently means that we are not driven to keep Lent perfectly, to turn it into a legalism. We are not trying to become the spiritual equivalent of Navy Seals and Lent is not the Church’s version of hell week. Keeping Lent gently is simply responding to Jesus’ loving invitation to come back home.

There is a beautiful line in the Psalm appointed today for Morning Prayer. It reads, “…mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord.”  Use this season of Lent to renew your trust in Him and allow His mercy to embrace you. May God grant us the ability to live Lent attentively and gently. Amen.

 

Don’t Be a Nimrod…Love

Buggs

Text 1 Corinthians 13

Editor’s Note: One of Bug Bunny’s favorite things to call Elmer Fudd was “Nimrod.” This name comes from Genesis 10:8,9 where the descendants of Noah are recounted and it says of Nimrod “He was a mighty hunter before the Lord.” So Bugs was being ironic and really calling Elmer a jerk. File that away for a moment.

Most folks have heard this beautiful love passage of 1 Corinthians 13 in the context of a wedding or have seen it hanging on a wall, written in lovely calligraphy with flowers around the borders. And while both of those are certainly appropriate, we get a better understanding of this passage when we see what has come before it. It may surprise you to learn that St. Paul wrote this piece as much as a corrective as he did to inspire. Let’s pull the camera way back to see the bigger picture.

I Corinthians

1:11“For it has been reported to me that there is quarreling among you.”

3:1,2 “But I could not address you as spiritual people but as people of the flesh…for while there is jealously and strife among you, are you not of the flesh?”

5:1“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you that is not tolerated even among the pagans….
6:1 “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to the law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?”

He goes on telling them to stop doing things that evidently they were doing. In chapter 6 he tells them to flee immorality. In chapter 8 he tells them that they should not eat meat sacrificed to idols if it makes a weaker brother stumble. In chapter 10 he tells them to flee idolatry. In chapter 12 he corrects them from thinking that if someone has a differing gift or if they are not very important then they are not needed in the Church.

So after numerous corrections over 12 chapters, then and only then does he show them a more excellent way and he speaks to them about love. In a very beautiful and poetic way he is telling them to stop being such Nimrods and start living like Christians should live. Seeing this passage as addressed to the whole Church changes our focus when we read this passage from – “I need to learn how to be more loving” to “How are we doing as a Church in the way that we treat one another?”

St. Paul gives us a kind of grid so that we know what genuine love is about and raise the bar for the whole Church. He speaks of the absence of love, the essence of love and the preeminence of love.

First he speaks of the absence of love. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

St. Paul is saying that the inherent problem of being spiritually gifted or having great spiritual insight or even possessing enormous faith is that if these things are not completely baptized in love then they are worthless. And they are not only worthless, they are dangerous because they lead to malignant pride. The Scripture says that pride goes before a fall and a haughty spirit before destruction. Both the Scriptures and current times are replete with examples of folks who were incredibly gifted and yet were toppled by their own hubris. Pride is so destructive because it places me first. Love is so healing because places you first. And we cannot have both because one forces out the other.

Next St. Paul gives us the essence of love. Note how little it has to do with feelings that is the culture’s major definition of love. Rather loves true essence is filled with actions and attitudes towards the well being of others.  Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful] it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

One scholar points out that all of the verbs St. Paul uses in describing the essence of love are in the present continuous tense. He says that this denotes “actions and attitudes which have become habitual, ingrained gradually…”

That says to me that love, like so many other things, is learned by practicing. Fr. BE didn’t just wake up one day and decide that he was a great tennis player. It took him years of practice to be good at it. Thus the more we practice love then more it becomes ingrained in us.

The line that jumped out at me in this description of love is that love “does not insist on its own way.” A couple of years ago I was in the Post Office and an elderly lady, seeing my clerical collar, approached and asked if she could ask me a question. When I said “Surely” she asked if I believed that it has become increasingly difficult to be a pastor in the last few years. I told her that I believed that it has. After I explained why I asked her why she brought it up. She said that her church had just gone through a split over the color of the carpet in the Sanctuary and that the split had nearly killed her Pastor with grief.

That sounds petty and ridiculous but insisting on having our own way runs deeply in the church. It runs from the color of carpets to the splitting of denominations to have our own way. But it is broader still. It is an evil power that dominates our politics and our culture and results in states recently passing laws that permit infanticide. “I’m going to have my own way even if it costs the life of a child.” How did we get here?

In his book Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard states, “Jesus’ resurrected presence with us, along with his teaching, assures us of God’s care for all who let him be God and let him care for them. It is love of God…and regular experience of his care that frees us from the burden of ‘looking out for ourselves.’…Then I meet everything that happens as sent or at least permitted by God….I not longer have to manage weather, airplanes or other people.” So a paraphrase of “it (love) does not insist on its own way, is“love is not being a control freak, stop being a Nimrod.”

But how do we do that? How do we stop being a Nimrod? Dallas presses the point further and says that we stop insisting on having our own way when we die to self. This comes from St. Paul who wrote in Galatians, I have been crucified with ChristIis no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Or to quote St. Carrie Underwood, “Jesus take the wheel.”We turn it all over to Him.That is how we die to self.

Dallas describes the fruit of that approach to life. “Being dead to self is the condition where the mere fact that I do not get what I want does not surprise me or offend me and has not control over me…what we surely can say it that those who are dead to self are not controlled in thought, feeling or action by self exaltation….but are easily controlled by love of God and neighbor.”He concludes with this. “To accept, with confidence in God, that I do not immediately have to have my way releases me from the great pressure that anger, unforgiveness and the need to retaliate imposes upon my life…It removes the root and source of by far the greater part of human evil we have to deal with in our world.”

Lastly St. Paul speaks of the preeminence of love. “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

So many of the things that our Lord has graciously given us to make our way in this world will pass away. As we heard last week from St. Paul this includes our bodies that will be sown perishable but will be raised imperishable. He gives us gifts to see our way on the journey but once we have reached our journey’s end there will be no more need for those gifts. We need them now because we have only partial sight. But once we see Him face to face we will be like a child who puts away those childish things to embrace a full and perfect relationship.

Some of the early fathers suggested that ultimately even faith and hope will fade away. Why? Because we won’t need faith when we know as we are known and we won’t need hope because all that we have hoped for will be realized. So all that is left, and all that we will need throughout eternity, is love. And for the first time and for all of eternity we will perfectly fulfill the command to love the Lord our God with all of our heart and soul and mind and our neighbors as ourselves. For all eternity we will live in the fullness of God’s kingdom and that is why the Church has always prayed, “Come Lord Jesus!”

Today we heard about the Transfiguration of our Lord. A chief purpose of this event was to present the divinity of Jesus Christ to His disciples. His divine glory was as brilliant to them as when He spoke to Moses.

Since Jesus is divine, and God is love, then it is correct to say also that Jesus is Love. When we take that truth and apply it back to our text we can look at this diamond through a different facet. Let’s listen to it one last time.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not Jesus, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not Jesus, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not Jesus, I gain nothing.

Jesus is patient and kind; Jesus does not envy or boast;..is not arrogant or rude. Jesus does not insist on His own way; He is not irritable or resentful; 6 Jesus does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Jesus bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Jesus never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away…For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.13 So now faith, hope, and Jesus abide, these three; but the greatest of these is Jesus.

As we see who He is and seek to become more and more conformed to His image then love becomes less about what we DO and more about who we ARE. Of course we will practice love and fail at times and practice some more and fail some more. So I find the words of St. Paul to the Philippians encouraging as we practice walking in love. He writes, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But 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 upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

As we enter into Lent this week let’s make this Lent much less about what we are giving up and much more about what we are putting on. Let’s put on Christ and learn to walk in love. Amen.