Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Work of Lent: Part 2

After last week's writing and conversations many of you were encouraged to work "harder" at your Lenten disciplines with a new focus on improving how we live in the world God is already loving, already raising, already saving.

My favorite was hearing this from one of the Growing a Rule of Life participants: "As the garden grows, so grows the gardener."

Two things jumped into my thinking upon hearing this gem.  First is how consistent with what we have already begun to consider about how we are compelled to focus and "shrive" and pray and make ourselves ready for hearing again that our messiah has died . . . and has been raised.

I remember my first Lent with Advent. On Ash Wednesday we were already surrounded by blossom after blossom of God's springing our world out of the darkness and the cold of winter.

It made no sense to beat up on ourselves so as to earn a place at the foot of the cross or even better at the entrance to the empty tomb or in the upper room.  God was already redeeming us and our world and the tender shoots and hopeful sprouts and unfolding leaves were all the evidence we needed to understand God as already ahead of us.

Lent became a hustle to catch up, a renewed effort to align our lives, an admission that we were saved by a gracious love and not in reward for good behavior or right thinking.

As the garden grows by God's hand, so grows the gardener.

The other thought was a story I tell often, at least annually and so here I go again:
The vicar of the church would walk each day through his village, mostly for his health but often to pause and pray or to be caught in conversation with parishioners.  One property always impressed him with the richness, beauty and order of its gardens.

Finally one day he saw the gardener.  He sprang at the chance to meet him and called him over.  Immediately he began praising him and thanking him for the loveliness of the gardens and how they always uplifted his spirits when he would pause and view them. Even the vegetables growing off to one side were lush and healthy, it was all a joy to behold. 
He went on to say to the gardener, "How fortunate you are and blessed by God to be surrounded by such life and vibrancy with this beautiful garden!!"

The gardener politely thanked the vicar, "You are very kind to recognize the beauty of this garden and I agree that God has blessed me with its care but vicar I have to say you should have seen this garden when God had it all to himself."
I'm still laughing but I am just as impressed with how this story makes a claim about our gardening as co-creative in partnership.

The work of Lent is ours to do because we are made in the image of God, meant to share a garden with God.  And as the garden grows . . .

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Work of Lent

For most of my life in the Episcopal Church I have used Lent.  There was always one thing prevented or avoided -- food, candy, entertainment, etc -- so that I would not be so distracted by it for at least a while and perhaps gain some mastery over its temptations.  Or a thing added to my broken routine of prayer, business, laziness, anxiety, procrastination, excitement, wonder and regret. Yes, I just described what was my typical day.

But what I did extra or new during Lent was always for me.  Always to improve me.  Yes to improve my prayer life but to improve it for me.  Always to help me. Yes to work more efficiently or effectively but to help me.  Always for me.

After I came to ordination and was called to the responsibilities of leadership in a chapel or parish I let my Lenten disciplines develop for the sake of the congregation.  Don't be fooled by this potential humility.  In many cases I was just trying to get others to join in my doing things more in line with my expertise.  More prayer services in particular.

I'll admit that I used Lent to shape my role.  I didn't want a bunch of meetings that required preparation or classes that needed study I just wanted to do what parishes needed a priest to do.  I guess I was being selfish by also using Lent to guarantee that I was needed.

Seldom did I use Lent to become a better pastor or to improve my management skills, or to work more efficiently.  I just wanted to simplify my life and avoid failure and disappointment.

This Growing a Rule of Life curriculum is not letting me do Lent like I've ever done it before.  These Cowley Brothers are pushing me everyday to dig deeper into my own heart and farther into the world of God's love and more broadly into the ramifications of those considerations to do way more than trim a bad habit, conquer temptation or add more to my meager patterns of prayer.

Everyday there is another question to dwell within, another metaphor to wonder/wander through, another challenge to receive, another structure to imagine and practice in growing a rule of life.

Up to now in my life of Lenten disciplines both personal and parochial I have done just a minimum of questioning, wondering, challenging or structuring.  I have done just enough for me.  For me to say I "did Lent." For me not to question my alleluias come Easter.  For me to lose a little weight, save a little money, work a little easier.  For me.

Now I see that I was just cheating, at least short cutting, "filing by title" something that cried for more engagement, more enrichment, more content, more work.

But like a gardener's, the work of Lent, a la SSJE, is never ending and not rewarded in a moment.  It isn't just planting, or just trellising, or just watering, or just harvesting.

The work of Lent for me this year is growing into the gardener my hopes deserve, into the daily care-taker that has several duties to be learned, appreciated, habituated and finally oblated.  Rewarded more in the doing than in the being done.

This "growing a rule of life" is the work of Lent and I'm pretty sure it is for me but like ever before.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Lent according to Mitch

His name is Mitch.  He is married and working on a dairy farm near Indianapolis.   We were introduced by another student.  They knew each other from their summers as leaders at Boy Scout Camp.  I baptized him at the Episcopal Center @ UGA early in his time as a student.

Each year after Mitch's baptism he became more and more important to the student community as a leader and in a more meaningful way, as a prophet.

He always asked really good questions.  He always wanted things not to just make sense but for the end result of any decision to be just and fair.

Mitch taught me how to "do Lent."

You may already know that I'm not inclined to work too hard on giving things up for Lent.  I've so seldom found "a thing" that once given up didn't return into my life and in a few cases trivialize all that my Lenten discipline had intended.  Every time I've given up a food or confection -- coffee and chocolate come to mind -- I've binged on those same items as soon as the egg hunts are started.

For me Lent is better used to grow into more prayer, more study, more of those things that help me in my life of faith.  So I take on things for Lent that are most often churchy and that require a continued commitment once the forty days are over.

What I learned from Mitch was that my Lenten disciplines could -- perhaps should -- help make the world a better place.  At the very least I should learn something from them.

The lessons I learned from Mitch started the Lent he decided to go bare-footed.  Yes in the dead of a fairly intense and lingering winter Mitch took his shoes off.

He made some reasonable adjustments, one was to leave a pair of shoes at his work place so that he could continue his employment.  They would have fired him otherwise.

He made a concession to the group on those few occasions when we decided to meet together at a restaurant or bar.  That is from where the name Theolatte´ came.  We would meet at an Athens coffeeshop and discuss our spiritual lives and the issues of the days.

I gave him a pair of flip flops that he could carry in his book bag so he could enter when the sign said, "No shirt? No shoes? No service."

We learned so much as a community from Mitch's bare feet.  Especially when we saw one of Athens' homeless in the same state, not by choice.

The next year Mitch kept all his garbage to himself.

If a food item came in a bag or a disposable container he carried that refuse with him for the rest of the forty days.  Thank goodness he learned how to minimize his exposure especially to the waste generated by fast food restaurants and super markets.

Think of how many ketchup packets are thrown away unopened!

By the end of the season he had learned to avoid many places and customs we as quintessential consumers never second guessed.

Mitch's Lent was for Mitch AND because he did not hide his efforts was for us as well.  We learned so much from his bare feet and stuffed sack.

Can our Lenten disciplines teach us as much?

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Rehearsing Ash Wednesday

The dynamic of our lives as a people baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is a remarkable thing to be done as well as to be said.  It is not just a thing we assert.  Yes, we do recite the Nicene Creed's version of that claim and all that goes with it in that embellished trinitarian hedge.

But more importantly we DO the things that our mouths profess.  Or more correctly, when we do those things in worship that our mouths profess in creeds and hymns -- in particular those things in worship like baptizing, breaking bread, sharing a cup, confessing, anointing, confirming, marrying, or ordaining -- we are rehearsing. We are doing within the confines of a community of faith those symbolic actions that we hope will take shape in our lives outside the walls on 338 Academy St.

About the rehearsing: Sunday worship is so much of what we do together, it has almost become an idol.  Too many of us, myself included, will let Monday be free from those concerns and claims we have just asserted and heard and those actions we have just practiced less than 24 hours prior as if NOT doing them is our reward for having done them symbolically on Sunday.

So the best we can claim about our Sunday gathering is that it is a rehearsal for the rest of our lives. In worship we are acting out in a hopeful pattern of entrance, offertory, silence, consecration, and dismissal our desire to join in brokenness and death the one who was raised and gloriously holds the promise of our resurrection to life, eternally.

The Ash Wednesday service is also a rehearsal.  We are doing something symbolic in kneeling to confess and while in that descent marking our bodies with a reminder of who we really are.

"Remember that you are dust," we say and the words perform through us.  And so you will hear it said, we "do" ashes.  Of all the symbolic actions done in our liturgies nothing challenges us like the imposition of ashes.

The challenge really comes later when we go out of the church's doors with a cross smudged on our foreheads and we no longer have the comfort of what we are doing being only a rehearsal.  I remember how awkward it felt to watch Stephen Colbert on TV, his forehead well marked.

It is not enough to dismiss the gospel for the day as ironic when it includes Jesus' command to us to wash our disfigured faces so as not to make a show of our piety.  We must admit that in order for what we say to be substantiated by what we do shows of piety or telling people we went to church or even telling them that we will pray for them are not enough.

We all know this already.  How many times in your own life have you heard someone you love say, "'I'm sorry' is not enough"?

By extension Lent is also a rehearsal.  40 days of practice.  40 days of holding together our words and our actions.  40 days of holding together what we do in church and what we do in the world.   40 days of rehearsing for a life of confession and humility and hope.  40 days of remembering that we are the dust for whom He became all dust.