A few years back, the group that had “always” coordinated the annual Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper at Trinity Church told me, in no uncertain terms that they were tired of spending the Tuesday evening before Ash Wednesday up to their elbows in pancake batter, sticky syrup and the greasy remains of sausage. They were ready to take a permanent break. After a brief search around for other groups to host the event in the first group’s stead, none came forward. It seems plenty of folks are in favor of eating pancakes, but preparing them and cleaning up after hungry hoards is another matter entirely.
It’s been four years since the pancake supper went down into the dust of memory. A few people voiced disappointment the first year we were pancake-less, but there has been no widespread outcry for the reviving of the event since that time. Because I am an Episcopalian, the thought of not having an evening of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday seemed somehow un-Anglican at the time, never mind the fact that very few folks in 21st century Wisconsin know (or care) about what it means to be “shriven.” Over the years, though, I’ve learned that having a quieter Shrove Tuesday provides me better preparation for the labors of Ash Wednesday than carbo-loading ever did.
I am neither advocating for the elimination of pancake suppers nationwide nor am I hoping that a parishioner will read this post and suddenly feel moved to “take up the batter and butter” to restart this custom at the parish I serve. Perhaps one day the custom will return to this the corner in Wauwatosa. Perhaps it never will. Local communities of faith develop their own particular rhythms with regards to such things. Customs are just that, customs. They are not central to the life of faith, even if they might be fun and/or meaningful to the faithful. For this season in the life of Trinity Church we have taken a fast from pancakes, syrup and sausage.
During these past four years, though, we’ve actually seen a small increase in the number of folks showing up for Ash Wednesday liturgies. Primarily, this uptick in attendance is due to the addition of a fairly informal (and lots more “active”) Ash Wednesday liturgy geared toward families with younger children two years ago. Tomorrow, there will be four Ash Wednesday liturgies at Trinity — 7 a.m., noon, 5:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. I know from talking with parishioners here that many take their Lenten commitments seriously. I know they view this season as an opportunity to renew their spiritual lives and refocus their attention on their relationships with God, family and neighbors. This is a good and holy thing.
Discontinuing the pancake supper and beginning an additional Ash Wednesday liturgy represent two sorts of change. Sometimes it’s hard for me to figure out which takes more energy in the life of a parish — to stop something that’s been around for generations or to start something that’s not been done before now. That’s the same sort of question the Church puts before us when it calls us to the keeping of a holy Lent. We are asked to stop some things and we are asked to start some things. Both of those admonitions can be difficult to undertake given the fullness of schedules and the frenzied pace at which many of us seem to live.
Perhaps the best way we can fully embrace the changes Lent calls us toward is to simply be gentle with ourselves. Maybe we could take the time to remember we don’t have to make the season into some sort of “spiritualized” self-improvement project. We can let go of our desire to be perfect. We can breathe when we fail at our plans and projects. We can embrace the realization that God’s love embraces us at all times and in all places — even if we don’t stuff our faces with pancakes and even if, because of the pace of our lives, we can’t manage to find the time to have our foreheads smudged with ashes inside the walls of a church building.
What if simply remembering that Lent is beginning is enough to begin the journey toward the the wholeness of life that God wills for each of us?
Even a little change is a change isn’t it?
Ash Wednesday 2014 is a bit over a week away. This past week, I spent a fair amount of time amalgamating, into one document, all of the various lenten activities that will take place this year at Trinity Church. It’s the usual round of things — additional opportunities for folks to pray and study and serve. I’m trying one new thing this year in the form of leading a Facebook Book Discussion Group. I’m resurrecting (no pun intended) my “Lenten Audio Diary” of two years ago, with broadcasts beginning on Ash Wednesday. There are sermons for me to preach and Adult forum lessons for me to teach as well. In addition to all of this, Trinity’s two resident spiritual directors will be leading a five part class designed to introduce participants to various modalities of prayer. We will see the return of lenten soup dinners after a hiatus of a year or so. I’m looking forward to it all. Lent is arriving right on time for me this year.
Over the past few weeks I’ve found it increasingly difficult to sit still or focus or read much of anything beyond an occasional long form article on this or that blog site. I have to confess that I’m pretty weary. Weary of war. Weary of gun violence. Weary of racism. Weary of the homophobia. Weary of partisan politics (from both sides of the political aisle). Weary of the lack of will in our society to care for those on the margins. Weary of the arguing. Weary of the fear-mongering. Weary of the judgmental attitude that seems to pervade many so-called Christians (me included). Weary of church fights — of both the denominational and congregational sorts. Weary of our seeming inability to simply be kind to each other in the midst of disagreeing with each other. Weary of being weary.
A favorite preacher of mine in an Ash Wednesday sermon back in 2000 said that Lent is “spring cleaning for the soul.” She said it’s the time of the liturgical year when we pull back all of the furniture of our lives and clean out the crud that’s been accumulating for far too long. Crud that we’ve gotten very good at hiding, but we can’t manage to hide from ourselves. This spiritual house cleaning, she said, begins with some changes in behavior and some changes in attitude — in theological terms, this is called “repentance.”
My plan for Lent 2014 is to repent of my weariness and to rediscover the hope that “does not disappoint.” (Romans 5:5). I’ll keep you posted on how the repentance is going. Winter is far from over in Wisconsin, but my soul is past ready for the spring cleaning of God’s Spirit.
My Dad died on December 15, 2012.
In the nearly five months between the time his doctors told him the cancer had returned and the last day of his life, Dad made his peace. He made his peace with life. He made his peace with death. He made his peace with friends and loved ones. As a person of faith, he made his peace with God. On one of my several visits over the course of the last few weeks of his life, he told me how he felt blessed because he still had some time to be with folks — to reminisce over old memories, or laugh at inside jokes, or enjoy the comfortable silence that can exist when one person has history with another.
Now my Dad was not some sort of Pollyanna positive thinker — far from it! He made no pretense about the dreadfulness of his illness. He didn’t try to put on a brave face for others’ benefit. He did something far greater. He put on an honest face. The disease was persistent and painful and took everything away from him before it eventually took his life. No, my Dad didn’t think the cancer was a blessing. The blessing he found in the slow onslaught of the disease was time — those extra few months of being here, in this life. The blessing for Dad was the time we all seem to take for granted every day until the day comes and we have no more of it.
For the past thirteen months, I’ve thought much about the last five months of my Dad’s life. I’ve thought about our conversations across some of those days. I’ve thought about taking him for rides to get a cup of coffee or see his favorite fishing spot. I’ve thought about the joy he expressed one afternoon when, for lunch, he ate a ginormous, garden ripened tomato, which he had liberally assaulted with salt and pepper (“When you’re dying, you don’t have to worry about sodium intake,” he quipped). I’ve also thought about the prayer I had with him just before the ambulance arrived to take him to the residential hospice unit two days before he died. I can’t remember much of anything I said in the prayer, but I remember what he said after I finished, “All of us are in God’s hands all the time, Gary. Maybe I can just feel them a bit better right now.” Indeed.
In the press and stress that is every day living, it’s so incredibly easy to forget that this life — this mysterious, marvelous, miraculous gift of physical existence can be over in half a heartbeat. With the day to day struggles of finances, kids, relationships, jobs and health challenges of one sort or another, it can be difficult to see the gift of life that comes with each breath we take. When we forget how precious this life is, we can easily forget our own humanity and we can begin to see others as objects to be molded, broken, manipulated or otherwise used for our benefit instead of greeting them as our companions in this earthly pilgrimage.
Recently I’ve started to marvel at how easily I can get caught up in the small-time dramas that seem to pervade daily living. A snarky remark here. A snide comment there. And for what? To prove my case? To get a laugh? To win an argument? And if my heart stopped mid-beat, would I want to take any of that stuff to the other side with me?
My Dad wasn’t perfect. He would have been the first to say so. But the gift of time Dad was given gave me the gift of a different perspective as someone who is rapidly concluding my fifty-fifth trip around the sun. It’s not always easy to remember that we’re just passing through this life. We sometimes forget that none of us will leave this life alive. It’s not always easy to remember that the thing we think is the most important thing ever could be chaff in the winds of memory in a matter of minutes. We sometimes forget that time spent nurturing relationships is far more important than checking off one more damned thing on the task list.
Thirteen months on, I’m still learning to live without my dad’s wit and wisdom, and yet, I find myself benefiting from that wit and wisdom all of the time. Some days are better than others. Today is a good day. Thanks, Dad!
Last August, while perusing the headlines of the Washington Post online, I followed a link to an interview with a fairly prominent Episcopal clergy person. The interview was, more or less, one of those “get-to-know-you” human interest stories that populate the papers during the slow news cycle of late summers in DC. The reporter asked the clergy person about the usual sorts of things. There were questions about gun violence, gay marriage and the dearth of people under the age of 50 in most mainline congregations these days. And then, unprovoked by the reporter, and without any sense of irony, the clergy person referred to himself as a “non-theistic Christian.” Just let that one sink in for a minute.
At first, I thought it was a misquote. Maybe I had missed the context for the stunning statement. I backed up a couple of paragraphs and re-read the passage again. And then a third time. Then I sat at our kitchen table staring at the screen with a furrowed brow while scratching my head in confusion. A non-theistic Christian? That makes about as much sense as a Pentecostal Buddhist.
Upon further reflection, though, I shouldn’t have been so flummoxed. The idea that “Jesus was a good, moral teacher who preached a message of peace and love, undergirded by a concern for the poor and outcast, but whose message has been co-opted by organized religion for the purpose of exerting power and control over the ignorant masses” has been around for at least two hundred fifty years or so. Plenty of people have claimed Jesus as a paragon of human virtue while simultaneously distancing themselves from any notion that Jesus was somehow the embodiment of God. For these folks, Jesus is an example to be emulated, but not God to be worshiped.
My guess would be that any gathering of well-educated, 21st century folks probably contains plenty of us who, if we were honest, could really get on board with the “Jesus-as-moral-teacher” message. That would make being a follower of Jesus much simpler, wouldn’t it? After all, isn’t it more important that we live Jesus’ message of love and peace than spend time arguing over metaphysics and Creeds? Besides, who has time to argue theology when there are so many social ills that need addressing?
Most of the time, I suspect that many of us (myself included) probably live our lives as non-theistic Christians. We do good work. We are kind to our neighbors. We serve our community. We contribute to charity. We raise families. We tend to aging parents. We care deeply for justice. We vote and consider ourselves good citizens. We just don’t think much about Jesus-as-God.
So when we hear the soaring prose from the first chapter of the Gospel of John this morning, we are confronted by some difficult assertions: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
The claim of Christmas is that the baby in the manger is the God of all creation.
Now let me be clear. This sort of claim isn’t something one can solve in an eight minute homily…or by a lifetime of church attendance…or with countless recitations of the historic Creeds…or through the perfection of one’s analytical abilities. Admittedly the claim of Jesus as God-in-the-flesh is a deal-breaker for many people who might otherwise find something attractive about Christianity as a way of living. I can understand why it may be tempting to downplay the “God thing” and emphasize the “doing of good works and being a good person thing.” And yet, on this Fifth Day of Christmas we are once again nose to nose with God.
The message of Christmas from an historic, Christian point of view is a difficult intellectual and philosophical pill to swallow. Anyone who tries to tell us differently is peddling a soft-serve Gospel that will not stand up under the hard realities of human experience. There is plenty of room for struggle and doubt as we wrestle with this Christmas claim. There’s even room for disbelief. Allowing for intellectual latitude and being generous towards a breadth of opinion, though, is not the same as abandoning the Faith that has been passed from generation to generation for twenty centuries.
Today we baptize Fiona into the family of God. My guess is that with the ever-quickening pace of life that is our world, those of us gathered here today to witness this event cannot even begin to imagine the possibilities, opportunities and challenges that are ahead for her and those in her generation. As I thought about this, I was sobered by the awareness that, by the time Fiona is my age, I will have long since left this world!
Today, in a splash of water and a smear of oil, we as the Church gathered will mark her as belonging to God. She will bear the title “Christian” for as long as she lives. Even if she should decide, at some point in her life, that she “no longer believes” in God, she will never, ever, by the sheer force of her will, be able to prevent God from loving her. This sacrament of Baptism will not wash off and it will never wear out.
Before we baptize Fiona, though, we will be asked to renew our own Baptismal Covenant. We will be asked what we believe and how we will live in response to those beliefs. Some days, it’s not easy to believe. Some days, in fact, it’s pretty close to impossible. But we are not asked to go it alone as Christians. We walk this walk of faith together, in community — a community that will believe on our behalf even when we’ve lost the energy or desire to believe for ourselves. The prayer we will pray after Fiona is baptized is the Church’s prayer for each and every one of us: “Give her an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”
So here we are. We are gathered around the Font and around the Table as Christians have done for millennia. We gather in the midst of our doubts and fears. We gather, bringing our belief and our disbelief with us. We gather, even though sometimes gathering here seems to make little sense in the face of so much that is wrong in our world. We gather to hear the Good News in a world often filled with bad news — this is Good News: “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us” — and his name is Jesus, Son of Mary and Son of God.
When was your last Christmas surprise? Was it when a beloved family member showed up, unannounced for the holiday? Or was it when someone gave you a gift you didn’t even know you wanted until you opened it? Or was it when you were alone, watching the lights on the tree twinkle and you had a sudden awareness of an expansive peace flooding your heart? When was your last Christmas surprise?
Most of us have heard Luke’s version of the Christmas story so many times we can almost quote it word for word — just like Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas. We look at a creche and each one of us immediately begins to engage the story from our own perspective:
Some of us enter the story from a place of imagination. Maybe we think about Mary and Joseph, alone in the dark, while Mary, a child herself, pushes a baby into a ragged world of uncertainty, hardship and pain. Maybe we imagine the smell of the cave crammed with livestock. Or maybe the moms among us remember their own labor to give birth and wonder what it must have been like for Mary to give birth to Jesus with only Joseph, her betrothed, to serve as the midwife. A few of us may think about Joseph, who will undertake the responsibility of raising a child who belongs to only God-knows-Who.
Others of us will view the story from the squinty-eyed perspective of rational analysis. We have lots of unanswered questions! Beyond the fantastical claim that Mary was a virgin, we happen to know that this story wasn’t written down until well after the events were purported to have happened. How do we really know this story is true? What if the Gospel writer simply made it up for dramatic effect? And if the writer did such a thing, how are we to trust anything else in the story? And the bit about angelic choirs serenading shepherds in the middle of the night? Yeah, sure. Happens all the time, doesn’t it?
But regardless of whether we’re faithful believers, fanciful romantics or fervent doubters, there’s one thing that we all hold in common as we engage the story. Nothing about it is a surprise for us. And maybe that’s to our detriment. The believers cannot be surprised by the glory of this birth. The romantics cannot be surprised by the grittiness of this birth. The doubters cannot be surprised by the grace of this birth.
Yet, this story isn’t about us or about angels and shepherds or even about Mary and Joseph. This story is about God. This story is about a God who refuses to astound us with special effects. This is a God who shocks us by showing up in out of the way places amongst people on the margins who struggle for their daily bread. This is a God who awes us, not with thunder claps and lightning bolts, but with the whimpers and gurgles of a newborn swaddled in cloth. This is a story about a God who is too big to fit into our expectations of grandeur and certainty, but who takes up residence within the confines of humanity’s history embodied as a helpless infant. This is a God who enters moments of grime and doubt and transforms those moments into unexpected grace.
A year ago, we gathered to celebrate Christmas in this place after anxious hours of watching and waiting following the murder of a Wauwatosa police officer just a block away from Trinity Church earlier in the day. We prayed for Jennifer and all of those whose lives have been cut short by acts of violence. We knelt after Communion and sang Silent Night — just as we’ll do again in a little while.
There in the candlelight last year, I was surprised by Christmas all over again. No, I didn’t hear a Voice from above or see any angel choirs. My questions about the tragedy of human violence toward other human beings were not answered. My disappointment at the injustices we continue to foist upon one another in the name of the free market or the good of the nation or even religion itself did not magically disappear. My raw grief from the recent loss of my father to cancer wasn’t suddenly assuaged.
No, my Christmas surprise came as I looked around this room that night. The surprise of Christmas came in the form of the familiar faces of my sisters and brothers in Christ. I saw the faces of folks who had lived life — with all of its ups and downs, its changes and chances — and still had the audacity to pray. I saw the faces of folks who had struggled with their faith and yet still had the willingness and the courage to trust. I saw the faces of folks who were far from naive, and who were still unwilling to give in to the cynicism of our age. In the glow of the candlelight, in the simple melody of an oft-sung carol, I caught a glimpse of God’s presence…embodied in God’s people.
The raw, unfiltered message of Christmas is this: God so loved this world, that God would not, could not, remain far off from it. God took on human flesh in real time in a real place with real people. This coming of God to a backwater town to first-time parents from the wrong zip code reminds us that the God we worship is the God who inhabits all the wrong places at all the wrong times so that every place and every time can be redeemed. This God who comes to all the wrong people is the God who will not forsake any one of us. This God who displays the greatest power through the greatest helplessness is the God who comes to us in our own moments of helplessness and pain with the assurance that we are never, ever alone. This God who lives in eternal relationship as Holy Trinity is the God who invites us into ever-deepening relationships — both with God and with one another.
So tonight, dear people of God, I invite you to embrace these next few, holy moments. Breathe deeply into the stillness that is right now. No matter where you are on your spiritual journey, whether you are a staunch believer, a hopeless romantic or a definitive doubter — Christmas is here for you. Allow yourself to be surprised by God in this holy season. Christmas is here and it arrived as it always does — with a baby, gift-wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger — Jesus, Son of Mary and Son of God.