Archives For Lent

On February 17, 2015

Ash Wednesday: Dirty Words

Writing in dirt

There’s a scene in the Gospel of John where Jesus stoops down and writes the only thing we have any record of him ever writing.

It’s in the middle of an incredible tense moment, where the religious, self-righteous leaders of his day, drag a naked woman into the Temple grounds and announce loudly, “This woman was just caught in adultery!”

The whole scene is done for theater, the religious leaders aren’t just trying to shame her, she’s the bait and Jesus is the target. They want to see if He’s going to try and do that whole compassion thing in front of everyone when it’s obvious that there’s no room to look the other way.

And Jesus does the last thing they expect, He bends down and starts writing in the dirt.

Introduction to Lent

So this is the beginning of Lent, it’s a season that Christians have practiced for over a thousand years. For those of you who grew up like me, Lent was something that we didn’t practice because we thought it was something that Catholics did. But Lent was something that Christians were doing long before the Reformation, and it’s something that most Protestant’s kept observing.

Because they knew how much we need it.

Lent is about self-reflection, and asking ourselves the question “How do I stand before God” We spend most of our lives asking that question from other people, we ask each to rate us 1-10, or we try to get likes or favorites, but Lent starts with allowing the gaze of God to search us.

Lent starts tomorrow with Ash Wednesday, where people gather together and wipe ashes on each other’s foreheads and say something like, “From dirt you came and to dirt you will return.”

When we say this, we aren’t saying some ancient Church invention, we are quoting God. When God talks to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, He tells them, “From dirt you came, and to dirt you will return.” (Adam actually is the Hebrew word for dirt)

That sounds really morbid, but only because we don’t hear it nearly as much as we need. Ash Wednesday is the one day a year that the Church remembers the one thing that’s true every day of every year.

We will surely die.

Did you ever wonder why the cosmetic surgery business is making around $20 Billion a year? Did you ever wonder why grandparents are starting to want to not be called Grandma/Pa? Or why that new grey hair bothers you so much? Or why some of our churches rarely have older people leading worship?

It’s because of this new social contract that we’ve all implicitly started to agree to, we’ve agreed to pretend to be “deathless.” We’ve agreed not to remind each other that it is from dirt we came from and to dirt that we will return.

Until that’s not an option anymore, until the stroke or the arthritis leaves us with limited mobility, or our spouse dies, and now suddenly everywhere we go our very presence is a reminder that the social contract is a lie.

Writing a Resume vs. Writing an Obituary

Ash Wednesday is when we do the exact opposite of what we do every other day, men and women look each other in the eye, and they say the most true thing they will say all year to one another, “You will die.”

And this, all of this, is a gift.

This is not to say that death is a gift, in Christian theology, Death is the last enemy to be defeated, but the awareness of death can be a gift.

Which brings me back to Jesus writing in the dirt.

Millions of sermons have been preached on this story, What did Jesus write? Why did he do it? What was the point? Why did no one record his writing?

But maybe this is the point.

Jesus is writing in dirt, God is once again picking up the dirt from which he made all of us, and he’s writes something that will ultimately not survive the day.

No one’s life stands the test of time, and time is a test.

Last week I read an article on about a new documentary on the 90’s boy band documentary The Backstreet Boys (didn’t see this transition coming did you?) The article had some fascinating observations about their life after fame, but this line was the one that stood out to me the most.

“As it is in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the main character (or perhaps villain) in the new documentary about the Backstreet Boys is time.”

These former legends now have bad knees, worn out vocal chords, and struggle with a life without fame after being defined for years as celebrities. The documentary shows them being introduced to 15 year old girls (their target demographic back in the 90’s) with the girls saying, “Who are the Backstreet Boys?” while one of them makes the painful observation that they weren’t born during their brief spark of fame.


Recently deceased actor James Rebhorn

All of our lives, at their best, are only writing in dirt. Time washes away even the greatest of accomplishments, and the wise among us know that this changes how we approach life and how we approach what we write.

Last year when the famous actor James Rebhorn (Homeland, White Collar) learned that he would not survive his battle with skin cancer, he had the foresight to write his own obituary. I think it was telling what he chose to write.

He wrote about the gift of life, his gratitude for his parents instilling faith and hospitality at an early age, about the pride he had in his children, and his appreciation for being able to do a job he loved. He never mentioned his fame, how much money he’d made, or the well known movies he starred in.

He wasn’t writing a resume, he was writing his obituary.

The truth is we are all writing our obituaries, day by day we are writing the lines that will one day be read over our dead body. With each decision we make we are writing our life’s story that will one day be told.

This is the truth of Ash Wednesday, we are writing our obituary with every day-planner we fill out.

We are dirt and to dirt we will return.

On March 4, 2014

Ash Wednesday: Love Weeps

“I went back to church thinking it would be like an epidural, taking the pain away. But I realized that church is more like a midwife, standing next to me saying push…it’s supposed to hurt a little bit.” -Brene Brown

“Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and broken Hallelujah” -Leonard Cohen

Man of Sorrows Stained Glass

Ash Wednesday is tomorrow, and I know for some of the readers of this blog, this may sound like a day that is just for Catholics.

But Ash Wednesday was going on long before Protestants and Catholics ever split. It’s an annual reminder that Christians have observed  for over a thousand years, where we remember that from dust we came and to dust we will return.

It is profoundly ancient, biblical, and Christ-like.

Man of Sorrows

If you were just to pick up one of the Gospels and read it for the first time, one the of the more interesting things about that would stand out to you was how much Jesus talks about death, in particular how much he talks about his own death, what He thinks it will accomplish, and how intentional He was about not shying away from it.

And then you would probably notice that Jesus cried a lot.

Which is not something most of us are good at.

In Tim Keller’s recent book, “Walking with God through Pain and Suffering” he talks about how uncomfortable most Western people are with suffering.  At one point in his book he referred to an interview the BBC had with Robert Spitzer a few years ago. Spitzer was one of the main psychologists who worked on classifying all the various mental illness and how they should be treated.

25 years later, Spitzer admitted that, in hindsight, he believed they had wrongly labeled many normal human experiences of grief, sorrow, and anxiety as mental disorders. When the interviewer asked: “So you have effectively medicalized much ordinary human sadness?” Spitzer said, “Yes, I think so, to some extent…”

In other words, what used to be just the natural response to the valleys of life has now become a disorder. We used to cry and now there’s a pill for that.*

It seems like our world has two different options for suffering, either to medicate it or to marginalize it.

And that’s all well and good, unless you are a Jesus follower. Because Jesus dealt with death and suffering much differently than that. Jesus, the Resurrection and the life, wept when he saw a friend die, a friend who he was about to raise from the dead! He wept over Jerusalem, even though He knew there would one day be a New Jerusalem.

Blood on the Floor

So this video is from Brene Brown (famous for her TED talk on vulnerability). In a world where everyone seems to be walking away from church, Brown a secular sociologist talks about her journey back toward faith.

But why she came back may surprise you. She says that she had always thought church was a way of avoiding suffering, but as she reentered the Christian faith she was surprised to find Jesus weeping.

When Brene Brown found herself back at church she said she knew that God was love, but she discovered that it wasn’t just that God is love, but that God defines love as well.  In reality, love is complicated and difficult and sacrificial. In reality, love bleeds, and love weeps.

In order for forgiveness to happen, something has to die. Like our expectations of how life should turn out, or how others should have treated us.

If we got to define love it would be all about puppies and unicorns, but in reality love is complicated and difficult and sacrificial. At one point in the video Brown talks about something her new minister said that I think is fascinating. He  said, “In faith communities where forgiveness is easy and love is easy, there’s not enough blood on the floor to make sense of it.”

What an interesting way to say that.

You know, unlike other Greek heroes, or even Jewish ones, Jesus doesn’t die like some stoic hero.Unlike Bruce Willis in Armageddon or George Clooney in Gravity (I’m realizing I watch too much sci-fi as I type this) Jesus weeps, a lot. He doesn’t brave it out, or just walk it off. He cries so hard he sweats blood.

In fact, this is the one thing that sets Jesus apart about how He died.

Because Love bleeds.

Now, if you know me, you know that I am very hopeful, I’m tired of the cynicism that pervades my generation, but this isn’t cynicism. This is the other side of hope. Death isn’t right, and there will be a day when death pays back what it owes.

But that day is not today.

I like the way one Lutheran Youth Minister says this:

It appears the world has little time for the church, not because we are broken people, people seeking to be honest about our loss and yearning. The world has little time for the church because it sees it as a very dishonest place–a place where people like Ted Haggard rail against others as immoral to hide the deep (sinful or not) yearnings that live inside of them, a place where people do not see their duplicity, where people hide from reality in religion.

In other words, if the world is going to believe the Church’s Good news, they have to see us be honest about the bad news too.

Without exception in the ancient world, all the heroes faced their final hours calmly removed and dispassionate. The Jewish heroes are hot-blooded and angry and fearless, but Jesus is nothing like that. Because Jesus doesn’t want to die. He thinks that this life matters, that this world matters, and anything not in tune with God’s dream for the world is worth weeping and bleeding for.

All is not as it should be, and there aren’t enough pills in the world to make it go away, nor can you just stuff it down deep enough to ignore forever.

This is the Wisdom of Ash Wednesday. Christians for over a thousand years have recognized that we need a season to remind ourselves of the one thing we most want to ignore.

We will die.

Suffering comes to everyone, but God suffers with us.

For God so loved this world, and His Love weeps.

 *This is not to dismiss the many psychological benefits and valid causes for medication like depression.

“It is appointed once for a person to die. After this the judgment.” -Hebrews 9:27

“But this is the hour—when darkness reigns.” -Jesus

The Orvillecopter by Dutch artist Jansen flies in central Amsterdam as part as the KunstRAI art festivalI don’t know if you saw this story last year, and if not, I’m sorry to do this to you. Because you can’t unknow this. Last year, Bart Jansen woke up to find his long-time pet cat “Wilbur” was dead. And that was unacceptable for Mr. Jansen. So he did what anyone of us would have done. He turned his dead pet into a helicopter.

He combined the fine art of taxidermy and small engine motors. And now Wilbur had been given wings…

As a preacher, I’ve done a lot of funerals and one of the things that I’ve noticed is how uncomfortable most people are during these times. I think it’s the same reason Bart put wings on his dead cat, or why the taxidermy industry exists at all. We don’t like to be reminded of death, and funerals are the reminder of the ultimate reality that we can’t escape.

And this is precisely why we need moments like Ash Wednesday.

Now I know for some of the readers of this blog, Ash Wednesday may sound a bit too Catholic. And I get that. Growing up, I was under the impression that all things Catholic were suspect.

My parents wouldn’t even let me be friends with girls named Mary.

But Ash Wednesday was going on long before Protestants and Catholics ever split. It’s an annual reminder that Christians have observed every year, for thousands of years It’s when we remember that from dust we came and to dust we will return. It is profoundly ancient and biblical.

Think about Job for a second. Do you remember what Job does when he hears the news about his family tragically dying? He covers himself in ashes.

We are all Job

In his famous sermon on the book of Job, Jonathan Edwards pointed out that all of our stories will one day be like Job’s. Sure Job lost everything in one day while most of us experience these losses more slowly. But rest assured one day each of us will be on the door of death, leaving everything behind.

James Stockdale was a war-hero and POW during the Vietnam war. He had lived through the underbelly of the human condition and wound up becoming an admiral, and eventually ran with Ross Perot for the Vice-President. When they asked him about the other POW’s who didn’t survive he always said the same thing:

“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter’ And then Easter would come and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving and then it would be Christmas again. One by one, they died of a broken heart.”

I understand why we want to ignore death, why we pretend it’s something that just happens to other people. But there is a reason that the church has practiced Ash Wednesday for so long. Because eventually optimism is really hard to keep someone’s faith going.

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On April 5, 2012

Memento Mori

So when I was a junior in college, I got a chance to study in and travel around Europe. by far, the most disturbing, and memorable stop in that city was the Capuchin Crypt. It was a monastery that began in the early 17th century. And it was filled with art, but the art was made of the bones of the monks who had died there .It was a little dark.

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On February 23, 2012

Painting in Black

So last night at Highland we observed Ash Wednesday.t’s no secret that the younger generations appreciate more and more the ancient aspects of our faith, but it was a joy to watch people from all generations participate in this ancient tradition. And so, in that spirit, I’d like to post some of the thoughts from last night.

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On April 13, 2011

A New Beginning

A blog re-post from Rob Bell about how he came to be a pastor. It’s a story about redemption, and dead end’s that turn into 2nd chances. And it has nothing to do with Hell.

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