Entering Lent Grieving

Today is Ash Wednesday. It is a day of holy contemplation and reflection. Traditionally, Ash Wednesday is a time when we begin the season of Lent by remembering our mortality and need of God to redeem us. One of the most important practices of this day is the imposition of ashes as a representation of our mortality and sinfulness.

In Scripture, the practice of wearing ashes connects to the expression of grief. When someone is mourning, whether it is Job or the mourners outside of Lazarus’ tomb, they would often place ashes on their head to represent their grief and sorrow.

As we begin this particular season of Lent, I recognize there are several places of grief that I am experiencing.

I am feeling the grief of the aftermath of General Conference. In the days since General Conference has ended, I will be honest and admit that I’ve not wanted to think too much about what took place other than what I need to share with you all. To be present in St. Louis was humbling and an honor, but it was also hard to watch. As I shared with our Town Hall meeting Sunday, I felt as though I was watching my church come apart along nearly the same divisional lines we see in the political arena. This breaks my heart. So, I am grieving where we are as a United Methodist Church, global, today.

I am also grieving this pastoral transition. While in my heart I know that my family and I are making the right decision for Noah and as much as we are excited about being in Huntington and closer to family, these realities also come with it a lot of grief. With every ministry ending there comes with it sorrow for relationships that will come to an end. So, please know that while my heart is looking ahead to the season to come, it is mournful for a season that is coming to a close.

I grieve where we are in our conversations with one another. Our conversations often represent the divides we experience today. We are living in one of the most divisive times that I can remember. Sociologists will try to come up with reasons for this – social media, political divide, etc. – but I don’t believe we spend enough time sorrowful for how we treat one another. If you are a progressive, there is a tendency to assume the worst among those who are conservative. The same goes with conservatives in how they view progressives. We dismiss those, with our words, the very people we disagree with. It often comes as a result of our inability to find common ground with one another, and this grieves me.

There is much more that grieves my soul, today, but these are just a few. My soul is heavy as we enter this holy season of Lent. As such, I recognize that within my own self is a need for God to heal these places of brokenness, to allow me to see my own contributions into these areas of grief, and to let God lead me into a path of deeper discipleship.

That is my prayer for my own life, today, and I hope it is also your prayer. Lent provides us an opportunity to recognize these places of grief that we have because the world doesn’t match up to the desires of God. For that matter, these places of grief come about because we know we don’t always live into the purposes God has for our lives.

We cannot carry on and act as though these places do not exist. That is a heavy temptation that hovers over us. To ignore common realities, these places of grief, and to move on as if nothing is wrong is something that we all face, because we live in a world that would rather move on that deal with the deeper realities of life. In doing so, we prevent the work of God’s holy love to heal us, renew us, and reshape us for deeper living with the Lord and one another.

The deeper walk calls us to experience the work of God’s love in the midst of the grief and to remember God is always present. We cannot ignore grief, but we can see them as an opportunity for us to grow deeper in our relationship with the Lord.

As we embark on this season of Lent, yes, I am mindful that there are several places of grief in my life. Yet, I remain hopeful, because God is present to heal, renew, and reshape these places of grief into opportunities for new life to shine through.

That is the promise of the Resurrection, after all, that Lent guides us towards.

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Why I Love Ash Wednesday

I remember the first time I saw someone wearing ashes on their forehead.

I was sitting in my high school in Shady Spring, W.Va., when a classmate came to school wearing a cross made of ashes. I had been attending church since I was old enough to “borrow” the microphone from the preacher as a young toddler to have my voice heard during a church event, but I had never seen the practice. It was shocking to see on Ash Wednesday, which to me at the time was just another day on the calendar.

That was this and this is now. What was once a day of shock has become one of the days of the Christian calendar I have grown to love and, more importantly, need. Today is Ash Wednesday. It is the day in the Christian calendar that marks the beginning of the season of Lent. We will gather at Ogden Memorial United Methodist Church at 6 p.m., for a time of worship, prayer, and reflection. And, yes, we’ll participate in the imposition of ashes.2247136630_4cab566160_b

Now, I am sure you are asking yourself this question: What purpose does wearing ashes do for a Christian? Good question! I’m glad you asked.

To answer this question, we have to get to look at why we need Lent. In our increasingly secular world, Lent is a practice that gets lost very easily and misunderstood. We’ll reduce it to a practice of merely giving something up than about a time to truly reflect on who we are and whose we are.

Lent is a season that runs for 40 days (not counting Sundays). It begins on Ash Wednesday and runs until the evening of Holy Saturday (the day before Easter). Lent is a time of spiritual renewal and reflection as we prepare our hearts to receive the good news that Jesus is alive.

Our practices surrounding Lent go back to the earliest days of the church. When communities of faith began to form throughout the Middle East and Asia Minor, the weeks leading up to Easter was used to prepare new converts for baptism. It was a time of teaching, reflection, and prayer that would lead to an individual’s baptism on Easter morning.

Lent is about reflection and renewal our lives and community. That takes us up, now, to why we need Ash Wednesday. This holy day is all about reflection and renewal.

We reflect upon our humanity. This day reminds us that life is precious. As I look at my own life and the communities I’ve had the pleasure of serving, this is something I believe we all struggle with. We have a hard time with death and the fleeting nature of life, because it is a topic we ignore in our conversations. Our conversations typically turn to our families, jobs, and sports. Seldom do we engage conversations about death and the limits of life beyond funeral services.

Our inability to talk about our humanity limits our conversations about some important topics. It’s hard to talk about conserving our resources, for instance, if we are unable to recognize that we are only here for a short period of time and how there are people who will come after us. At the same time, it’s hard to even deal with grief if we are unable to talk about what death means for each of us.

Ash Wednesday, and its imposition of ashes, reminds us we are humans who were created by a loving God. Truly, as Genesis 2:7 reminds us as dust we came, as dust we will return.

This day also reminds us to seek renewal in our hearts and lives. The imposition of ashes, in scripture, was a sign of sin and mourning. Jesus says if people would have recognized what had been done in other places they would have placed ashes on their bodies (Matthew 11:21).

Ashes provide a visible connection to our human nature and sinfulness. It is a way to encourage spiritual reflection of our hearts and to contemplate who we are, our actions, and God’s desires for our lives. Ashes also remind us of our need of God’s grace and prepare us for deeper moments of reflection to come throughout Lent as we move towards the cross and the empty tomb. On this day, and season, we yearn to turn away from a life of disobedience and seek a life defined by God’s love.

It is why I love Ash Wednesday, because I need this day. I need this day, because I need that reminder of God’s love and desires for me, my family, my church, and the world. I need that reminder of my humanity and my call to care for one another.

So, if you see someone wearing ashes today I hope you will not have the same reaction I did 20 years ago. My prayer is it will lead you to reflect on who you are and whose you are in God’s love.

Why We Fast at Lent

Today is Ash Wednesday. It is a day that we remember our morality and our need of God in all things. It also marks the beginning of Lent, which is the season that prepares us for the celebration of Easter.

More than that, however, Lent prepares us to receive the Good News of Christ’s love. One of the ways that we prepare ourselves for Lent is by getting our hearts ready through the spiritual practice of fasting. In fasting, we are giving up something that has control over our lives in order to grow closer to God. Continue reading

Sunday’s Sermon: Will You Listen to Him?

In between coughing fits and bits of exhaustion, yesterday afternoon, I was able to watch one of my favorite movies on television: Glory.

The movie tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, which was one of the first units in the Civil War to include African-American soldiers. It stars Matthew Broderick as Col. Robert Shaw, who helps to bring together a group of former slaves to fight for the Union. Many of the soldiers, including Shaw, ultimately gave their life to that fight during the Second Battle of Fort Wagner.

Also starring in the film is Morgan Freeman, who plays the role of the fictional Sergeant John Rawlins. Though his performance pales in comparison to that of Denzel Washington’s Trip, he stands out in his role as a gravedigger who becomes a leader among the enlisted soldiers. His voice and presence quickly places him in a leadership role among the men in the regiment.

That is almost appropriate. When we hear Freeman speak, we can’t help but be mesmerized and listen. We also can’t help but think, “Is this what God sounds like?” We like to think that his baritone voice is what God would sound like. It has that comforting and authoritative tone that we might expect how God’s voice sounds. Of course, it helps that Freeman has played God in Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty.

To be sure, we don’t know how the voice Peter, James, and John heard on the mountain sounded. We do know that the voice they heard was the voice of God and is heard at the end of an intense and powerful moment. Today is Transfiguration Sunday, which is the day that we remember how Jesus gave a glimpse of his full glory to Peter, James, and John on the mountain. It is a moment that set the stage for what was to come: Jesus’ singular focus on going to Jerusalem to fulfill the mission he came to accomplish.

For Peter, James, and John, God’s voice delivers an important message. We are told that it is one they keep to themselves until after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. The message announces who Jesus truly is. What takes place on this mountaintop and what is said is not just for Peter, James, and John, but for us as well. The message speaks to us as we embrace this week and the beginning of the season of Lent. This entire scene and the words that come out from the cloud offer us guidance of what it means to enter a deep relationship with the Lord.

Jesus’ transfiguration follows another important moment in his ministry and relationship with his disciples. Prior to taking Peter, James, and John to the mountain, we have a critical moment where Jesus is alone with his disciples and asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” It is Peter who gives the declaration that Jesus is the Messiah. Peter makes the claim that Jesus is the long-expected Messiah who would redeem the people. Jesus follows Peter’s affirmation with an interpretation. He says the “Son of Man must suffer many terrible things.” Jesus makes an announcement that the Messiah has to die in order to fulfill the mission of redemption.

We know that Peter had a difficult time with this message, and perhaps so too did the other disciples. It is hard to hear that this person you believe to be the Messiah now is telling you that he must die in order for salvation to be accomplished. I wonder if this difficulty gives us a clue into what takes place on this mountain. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John – his inner circle – to the mountain to pray. In Luke’s gospel, prayer is a signal that something significant is to happen. Prayer was significant in Jesus’ ministry and guided him throughout Galilee, but when we see him praying in Luke in particular, it is typically followed by a significant moment or revelation.

Here, we receive a revelation of Jesus’ true self. The disciples had perhaps only seen Jesus as a human who taught with a deep understanding of Scriptures and who could do some amazing things. They saw him as a great prophet, but hadn’t fully grasped who Jesus truly was. On this mountain, as Jesus is in prayer, the disciples experience a taste of Jesus’ true self. The see his face change, his clothes become “dazzling white.” Jesus is seen in new light that brings about a deeper understanding. He is seen in his divinity. Jesus shows his disciples, and all of us, who he truly is. He is fully human and fully divine. He is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity.

It is an eye-opening experience that isn’t quite finished. As this is going on, Peter, James, and John see two men next to Jesus. It is Moses and Elijah, who were two great prophets of the Scriptures. They are speaking with Jesus about his “exodus.” Luke is the only account of the transfiguration that gives us an account of what was being said. The word “exodus” is significant and brings to mind the Exodus of the people of Israel and how they were redeemed from slavery in Egypt. What is being discussed on this mountaintop is the exodus that Jesus must take on. His exodus would lead to his death. In order for humanity to be redeemed of its sin of disobeying God, the Son of God must be offered as the atoning sacrifice for all of humanity and creation.

The discussion gives confirmation to what Jesus has told his disciples about his mission, but so too does the presence of Moses and Elijah. Not only were these two very important prophets of Scripture, but they also represented the law and the prophets. Their presence on this mountain gives confirmation that all of Scripture look to this moment when the Messiah, the Son of God, would come and redeem the people from their bondage to sin. From this moment on, Jesus would be focused on this exodus and Jerusalem. His focus would be set on the work he came to accomplish.

If all of this wasn’t enough for Peter, James, and John, there would soon come one more bit of revelation for them. After Peter speaks about making a shelter for Moses and Elijah, a cloud overshadows them. The presence of a cloud is symbolic of God’s presence. This was the case during the wilderness experience for the people of Israel as the cloud guided them on their journey out of Egypt and into the Holy Land.
As the cloud covers them, we hear a voice coming out from it. The voice, God’s voice, announces that, “This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him.” It is a word of confirmation that is given to the disciples and any who would hear. The voice tells us that Jesus is the Son of God, the divine redeemer sent to rescue the world from its sin. It is appropriate that the voice comes here. This confirmation comes as Peter, James, John, and the other disciples, are wrestling with exactly who this Jesus truly is. Peter has announced that Jesus is the Christ, and the voice from God is saying this is the case and telling them and us what this means. Jesus is the one chosen to bring about redemption and to inaugurate God’s kingdom. This isn’t the only time that a voice from God brings about confirmation to Jesus’ identity in Luke’s gospel. Jesus himself receives confirmation of his identity at his baptism when he is told that he is God’s “dearly loved son” who pleases him.

The transfiguration scene brings us to a deeper level of understanding of who Jesus is. He is the Son of God sent to the world for the purpose of an exodus, a mission of redemption, that would bring the people back to the Father through faith in the Son. What may appear at first glance as a difficult scene is truly a powerful experience of God’s love for us to send us his Son for the purpose of our salvation.

Which is why the last words the voice from God says are important for us today. God says “listen to him.” It is an imperative of response. God says if you truly believe that this is my Son, that he has this mission, and will accomplish it, then listen to what he says. To listen to Jesus means to take what the Lord says and make it true in our lives and the way we encounter others. It means to allow the words from the Lord to be made real in us and to transform us through the power of the Spirit. In the context of this passage, listening to Jesus also means to believe that he must suffer for our sins.

Listening to Jesus may be one of the most difficult things we do, because it means we are allowing the words to become real in us. We are not just saying that we believe what Jesus has said to us, but those words are becoming power and real in us.

As we enter the season of Lent on Wednesday, and truly after having gone to the mountain and hearing this voice, we are asked a simple, but profound question: Will we listen? Will we listen to the voice of God and its announcement that Jesus is truly the Son of God, who came to die not just for the world, but truly for us? Will we listen to what Jesus has to say to us about what it means to live as a faithful disciple in this world? Will we listen to Jesus when his words challenge our beliefs, desires, and agendas and allow those words to be transformative in our lives?

The season of Lent allows us to reflect on how real Jesus is in our lives and how deeply we listen to what he says. Starting Wednesday, we have a 40-day period, not counting Sundays, to enter a time of reflection on how well we are listening to Jesus’ words. We have the opportunity to give up things that distract us and focus more on the power of Christ working in us and through us to transform us so that we may transform others.
What is preventing you from truly experiencing the mountain experience of Jesus’ true self and his love for you? What keeps you from listening to Christ’s message and words? What is holding you back?

My prayer is that this season will be a time of deep transformation for you, for me, and for all of us. My prayer is that we will go to the mountain, like Peter, James, and John, and see Jesus for who he truly is: the Son of God who came to the world with a purpose of redemption. My prayer is that we will hear the depths, love, grace, and hope of God’s love and desire for us in this season of preparation.