upper room daily devotions

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Lent 4A -Easier Not to See

As I prepare for this week's sermon on John 9:1-41,
I think about the blindness in our society.
We cut off
disability benefits,
collective bargaining rights,
unemployment benefits,
protection for our environment.
And, yet we still fight two wars
and one "non-war."
We consume.
We use.
We burn.
We blow up.
We divide.
We bicker.
We hate.
We do not see.
We do not see.
We do not see.

One thing is clear to me in John's gospel story.
We cannot be sent into the world
if we cannot see it.
We cannot heal it
if we do not love it.
We cannot.
We must first see.

Our eyes are closed,
There is too much to see
To see
is to love.
To love
is to act.
To act in love
is to heal
and not kill.

I wonder if we are ready
to wash in the Pool
of Sent.

But I pray to God
to rub our eyes with holy mud,
made from earth
and holy spit,
and to open our eyes
to new sights
that cannot
be unseen.

This is the Gospel of Our Lord:

To see.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Lent Theme: Unclutter ______

A "Season of Sabbath" is what I unwisely decided to name our theme for Lent at the church I serve. While it gets to the point that I want to make, the word "Sabbath" isn't a compelling word for a lot of people. Moreover, people aren't going to cease from their labor for a whole season.

A few weeks ago, I was visiting a friend's house and saw a television commercial (I don't have broadcast TV, so I see very few commercials) from publicstorage.com. It is called "Accumulator." This ad made me gasp (you may watch it after the jump).

I know that the idea of uncluttering our lives is not a new one for Lent, but I have always found the thought of uncluttering *my* life to be a rather individualistic approach to the season. It's also pretty person-centered and not particularly God-centered. Sabbath, on the other, hand is really about God. God ceased from labor, and so do we. God rejoiced in creation, and so do we. God delivered us from slavery, and so we care about the labor of others. Sabbath begins with God; we are invited into God's rest, God's joy, God's justice. And, we are invited all together. Not individually. What does this have to do with accumulation, you might wonder. Well, at the heart of the Sabbath ethic is the idea that we take only what we need and leave the rest for others. In Exodus, before the people have been given the Law by Moses, they are told to gather manna. They are instructed only to take enough for one day and to take only enough for their household. On the sixth day, they may gather enough for two days and no more, that they may rest from their labor as God rested on the seventh day. This manna rule - this story about accumulation - is about clutter and rapaciousness. It is also about fear.

We often gather things into our lives out of fear. Fear drives us to look upon other people as wholly different from ourselves, and their "otherness" allows us to treat them as we could never bear to be treated. Fear tells us to hoard - food, clothes, things that need casting away. Fear compels us to upgrade, upsize, and get the next big thing. Fear whispers to us that there may not be enough food, so eat! Fear tells us that others want what we want, so build fences, install alarms, and post cameras. Fear can be found at the root of much of American anxiety. And, it is at work in our emotional lives as much as it is at work in our physical lives.

Because of fear, we hold on to wounds, grudges, and prejudice. This emotional clutter drives us to a kind of emotional or spiritual rapaciousness. People can need love so much that they put themselves in physical danger. People may repeat hurtful relationship patterns that they have lived through in their past. People may be afraid to seek or extend forgiveness. Both of these are very dangerous. To know we need forgiveness without the humility to seek it robs a person of healing and continues the original misdeed into the future. To be unable to forgive keeps both the offending party and the offended party held hostage to a past that cannot be changed. And, it sends them both into the future to carry that wound forward into the lives of others.

Fear drives people to greed and to unchecked accumulation. If there is one thing that Americans need to learn to do, it is to let go of accumulation as a cultural value. To do this, we, as a whole culture, must begin to examine our fears and to challenge them.

Sabbath does just this. It provides a wholly different approach to the world that trusts in abundance and in God's guiding presence. Sabbath makes no room for fear; it is too busy making room for the "other" - for the stranger, for the neighbor, and for all of creation to thrive. Lent is a season that invites the Christian to examine all that obstructs us from God's presence. What fears hold us captive? What fasts do we need to take on in order to enter into God's kin-dome (Isaiah 58)? What spiritual practices will bring us near to God? What habits need cultivating that will foster our authentic selves and dispel our false selves? What priorities do we need to establish in order to see the stranger as our neighbor and to treat our neighbor as ourselves? These are deep questions of faith. They do not ask us to find new ways to store the accumulation in our lives. They challenge us to pare down that which does not serve God.

God has gifted us with life, but it is our holy and sacred challenge to sort out how to live it. Lent is a time of justification. But it is not a time for navel gazing. Lent, as a time of preparation for the convert or repentance for the Christian, challenges us to re-center ourselves in God's glory, that we may be born from heave and raised with Christ come Easter morn. These phrases may mean little in our secular world, but they simply mean that through the process of re-centering, re-focusing, uncluttering, and prioritizing, we can let go of the vices of this world in order to be born into God's vision for this world. This rebirth gives us God's eyes with which to view creation and God's heart for all of creation. And, by this rebirth, we are raised to new life as Jesus. The powers and principalities of this world - the powers of sin and death - cannot hold us prisoner any longer because we live in a world ruled not by scarcity, not by sin, not by death, but by abundance, right relationship, and life. This is to what you are invited. And, we don't get there by accumulation. We get there by trust and through service. A new way of living altogether.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Ashes, Lent, and a Changed Life

Look around. Our world is messed up. I don't care where you live, how rich you are, or how educated you are, you have been touched by this messed up world. Lost jobs. Government that is (at best) ineffectual and (at worst) corrupt. Revolutions. Melting ice caps. Insurance premiums. Children shooting children. Religious people wielding religion to heap violence on others. It's a messed up world. Filled with violence, despair, and greed - rapacious greed. Ash Wednesday couldn't come soon enough for me this year.

Lent is the most holy time of penitence on the Christian calendar. Traditionally, it is a time for potential converts to assess the true desire of their hearts and their willingness to live the Way of the Cross. Historically, it has also been a time for those within the Church who have strayed from this Way to repent, to humble themselves, and to seek forgiveness. Every year I can get a little (as my mother used to say) "too big for my 'britches.'" And so, this season gives me a chance to remember my place in the world. Neither better nor worse than any other person. A sinner. A blessed child of God. A human being yearning for something more, something better, something whole.

For the past week, I've felt especially melancholy. I've not felt competent at my job. I've felt frustrated with unfulfilled ambition. I've been angry at myself for not completing important goals that I've set for myself. Today, I woke up a different person, ready to have ashes imposed on my head, reminded that I have been gifted this one life to live in God's presence, for the sake of God's work, and nurtured by God's Gospel. I woke up ready to give up the ongoing struggle with my humanity and to embrace it as a pathway to wholeness.

I woke up ready to be changed. That's what ashes do. They remind us to be humble. They call us to mourn for lost opportunities, for wasted choices, for lives lived less fully than they could be lived. These burnt palm leaves remind me that we - all of us - are part of God's beautiful world, completely insignificant to it and vitally needed for it - both at the same time. When the ashes touch my head and I hear God's voice say, "From dust you come and to dust you shall return," I know that I am part of a salvific history that began long before I was born and that will exist long after I'm gone. I have one life. This life. My choices are important in this life. I cannot go back and change my life. How I decide to live each moment has an infinite number of consequences. And, yet, I am but dust. It is a wonderful paradox. A paradox of which I need reminding in the most tactile way - with ashes on my head.

We live messed up lives in a messed up world. If that were the beginning, middle, and end of the story, we would be hard pressed to want to be here at all. We also live these messed up lives in the presence of a healing, transforming, saving, earth-shattering God. A parent who welcomes us home after transgressions. A friend who accompanies us on foolhardy paths. A teacher who instructs us to live better. A critic unashamed to tell us to do better. A breath that infuses our lungs. A poem that inspires our hearts. A lion that protects her cubs. A fountain that overflows with living water. A tree that grows fruit for the body and leaves for the healing of the nations. A word that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. This is our God. This is our Gospel. It is with us in the "mess-upness" of our lives.

When the ashes touch our foreheads today, we look at all of the "messed-upness" of our world and in our lives. We look it squarely in the face. We take responsibility for broken relationships. We acknowledge the errors that we have made. We do not flinch. We can take it because we are empowered by our God. And then we enter Lent. We wander in the wilderness as did Jesus - as did the Israelites. During our 40 days, we may cry for how things were. We may not trust that God is creating change in our lives. We may want what we do not have and hoard what we do have. But God is at work. God is pulling us out of slavery and is preparing us for freedom. God is using this wilderness to disorient and then reorient us. God is challenging our understanding of unholy work - work done for Empire, for greed. Work done without restraint or constraint. Work that harms us and other. And God is preparing us for another kind of work. Holy work. Work that begins by stopping (Read Exodus). Work that uplifts the whole community. Work that recognizes limits. Work that never seduces us into believe that we are gods. Holy work transforms community. It makes space for the widow and the orphan. It welcomes the stranger. It leaves time for family, play, and worship.

I am so happy to have arrived at Ash Wednesday. I am not a unit of labor. I am not an awful person. I am not a god. I am not bad. I am not good. I am a human being of infinite worth among 6 billion other humans all of infinite worth. That's a lot of infinite. That's a lot of worth. Thanks be to God.

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