LETTING GO OF ASHES

revmmlj:

A good minister friend of mine posted this. How do you carry your ashes?

Originally posted on :

Lent is my season. It has always been my season.

Out of all the seasons of the Christian calendar, Lent is the one that’s a little dimmer, more somber. Shades of dark purples and grey instead of bright reds and whites and greens. In comparison to the other seasons, which all seem to be about the Light or the coming of the Light or the fire of the Light’s presence on earth, Lent is the singular season when we’re called to darkness.

It’s the season of repentance, of lament, of reflection, when our hearts are called to strip away that which distracts us from engaging with the present reality of who we are and where we’re at, to shut out the constant barrage of noise and information overload and let ourselves sit in the silence that so often terrifies us.

I like that silence, and I like a touch of the darkness, too. I’ve always…

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The Rest

Do you remember the feeling of being tucked into a quilt or an afghan or a comforter, bundled up against a bitter winter with a cup of cocoa and a nice, quiet novel? Do you remember drowsing by a quietly crackling fire as the wind howls over the rooftop?

Do you remember a lazy summer day on a hammock or a rocking chair or a bank of grass, sunlight pouring onto you, and the sound of a soft breeze with just a hint of dust wafting over you? Or maybe it was lying on a beach towel, with the sea breeze playing in the sand.

There is a state – a state of being and a state of mind in which we, in our modern, hyperconnected, fast-paced world no longer fully participate – called rest. It’s a critical part of our biology and a key part of our overall health. Getting enough sleep, taking downtime, having leisure to breathe – rest is an absolutely critical component of our well-being.

Rest is so important, in fact, that it was woven deeply into the liturgical and daily fabric of the life of God’s people, Israel. Every seventh day Israel was a sabbath to keep holy, a day of rest, in which they would do no work. Every seventh year the ground would lie fallow – nothing would be planted, and the whole of the land would rest. In the Psalms we find the Hebrew word selah – it means a pause, or a breath – in musical terms, a rest.

For St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, this is that season. A time to reflect and refresh and renew. These next few weeks and months, the seasons of Ordinary Time and Lent, from now through March 29, will be time of rest for the church. Big things are afoot – large projects, new initiatives, and, in God’s own time, a new pastor. Now is our time, our chance to take deep breaths. To listen to God’s creation whirl around us. To rest.

Breathe, my friends and neighbors. God is working marvelous things in you – and he does it best when you take the time to rest.

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The Kitten

A few minutes ago I was distracted from my morning pastoral reading by a soft but persistent mewing sound. Unable to identify, I turned to my office window, and saw a cat, uncollared or tagged, who was clearly NOT the source of the mewing.

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I was not on the stick enough to get a picture of the cat, but here is the view from my office window.

Further investigation proved that there was an ADORABLE black kitten trapped in the window wells of the basement. Intrepidly, and with the assistance of one of the Elders, I was able to descend into the well, safely capture said kitten in a large and fluffy winter coat, sustaining no damage to my person, and return it to surface level, where it DASHED off in pursuit of its companion grown cat.

I’m now slightly plagued by questions – ought I to have called animal control? Should I have more aggressively restrained the poor creature and assured it at least a meal and a few moments warmth? Will these animals survive the Colorado winter brutality? Ought I to leave a saucer of milk without the church as I depart? I am not sure.

Often when I’m asked for help, it’s humans who need specific help I’m in no position to give. A few bucks here, a meal there, some gas for the day, maybe. I can’t, often, transform a life, or find someone a home, or really knock the obstacles out of their way. So there was something deeply satisfying in having a clear, direct NEED that I could physically address.

It took work, though. It took me getting out of my office chair into the cold, some investigation. At first I thought I could just open the downstairs windows (NOPE), but instead I needed to jump the little fence, to lower myself into the window well, to trudge around the leaves. I needed to stretch and haul and push, and then I very carefully and gently needed to surround that cat with the fluffy coat I had brought to restrain it and safely withdraw it from its prison.

In the aftermath of the Christmas season, this sounds to me (a bit) like the Incarnation. A big and powerful thing, God, came down to where I live and was trapped. It was not easy – God had to work to get down to where we were. God then reached in and safely, warmly, securely, wrapped me round and set me up on a path of freedom.

Now, Mittens (Boots? Fury?) could have turned and thanked me, but not fully understanding what all was done, the little nipper scampered after its mom/dad/companion. We, as humans, seeing what has been done for us…well, we’re left with the same choices. Will we run from the terror of forces we don’t understand? Or will we trust that the thing that has saved us already might save us more? Will we take a chance on a kind and benevolent stranger who knows our needs better than we do, with more power than we can conceive?

Before God, we are like kittens. Playful, silly, powerful but unfocused. Capable of doing ourselves great harm, or of being rescued and cared for. The choice is ours. And once we are grown, we are sent into the dangerous world – to help the other cats out of the hole.

My little friend was very much thus, only with more gallumphing through leaves and some AMAZING attempts to elude me/its little pit.

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Pro Christi Natalem, In Xmas

A smarter person than I (I can no longer find the article, sadly, although Jim Wallis makes a lot of points that I’m going for far better than I will) was writing on the War on Christmas – this supposed battlefield of the culture wars in which atheists, agnostics, members of other faiths, and a vast media conspiracy are working together to destroy traditional understandings of Christmas. I must confess, I am entirely in sympathy, and a fierce partisan – a warrior against “Xmas.”

Xmas (which I am here distinguishing from the Christian holiday season that begins on December 25 and ends on January 6, celebrating the birth of Christ) is a terrifying temporal empire – a sprawling, consuming season of commercialized junk that, every year, reaches further and further across the calendar of our nation. I recall, fondly, my mother’s insistence that Christmas music stay out of the CD player until after the dishes were done on Thanksgiving. Now, I hear, the Christmas goods need to be up in the stores the night of Halloween…and they will stay up, summoning Americans with their siren song of recreating the joyous warmth of holidays past, for almost two months.

I like bits of Xmas…Christmas trees and satsumas (or clementines, depending on your region), some of the music, some of the decorations. I am no Grinch, by any means.

But the Whos down in Whoville were, I think, wise enough to note that Christmas was not every day – it was not even a month leading up to the 25th. The whole action of the book takes place in, perhaps, two days.

The reality is, of course, that this is a three-front war. Some liberals and others against both Xmas and Christmas; Xmas doing its level best to swallow Christmas altogether, and Christmas, trying very diligently to preserve its meaning amidst great adversity. There’s also a sub-battlefield of that war – Advent versus Xmas, as Christians try, with great difficulty, to keep alive the anticipation of Advent, the sense of wonder, the hope that precedes the joy.

As Xmas has swallowed more and more of the year in my lifetime, as stores and corporations have pushed the season past its respectable bounds, as non-Christian symbolism have made conquest after conquest, I have, at last, taken up arms. I am a warrior in the war against Xmas, on the side of Christmas and Advent.

I bought no holiday swag, no gifts, no Xmas ornaments or lights, until AFTER Thanksgiving. Surely Black Friday, that most pagan, hideous holiday, surely that is enough for Xmas. Surely it needs no more ground. I also gave Black Friday a pass, and Cyber Monday, too. Then I turned on my King’s Singers Christmas CD, and pulled out my ornaments. Surely a month should be enough.

I invite you to read up on Christmas, and on Advent, too. I invite you to join the armies of the War on Christmas, defending its real understanding – the preparation and celebration of Christ’s birth – against those who would twist it into a worship at the altar of commerce. I invite you to feel the joy that you felt as a child in its proper season.

And remember, also, this. The best of Christmas – the very best – can be found in the truths of the stories we tell our children. Charlie Brown and Dr. Seuss preach Christmas better than a hundred blowhards on TV on either side. Remember Linus telling the story of the shepherds. Remember the Whos down in Whoville, who need NONE of the trappings – not a Merry Christmas or a manger scene or a tree or any of it – to remember who and what they are celebrating. It’s not about the stuff.

It’s about the baby.

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The Armistice

As of 11 a.m., November 11, 1918, the War, the Great War, was ended. Millions were dead, their blood watering fields from Flanders in Belgium, to the far reaches of the Ottoman Empire and north into Russia. Europe had survived, after a fashion, the horrors of the trenches and mustard gas. New technologies and innovations sprang from the necessities of war, such as the airplane. The United States, contrary to the old Monroe Doctrine, had been drawn into the European conflict.

And they said…they said that this was it. The end of war. There would, could, never be another. Too many had died, the cost had been too high. As we continued to innovate, we would only find more and more effective ways of killing each other, until we got so good at killing one another that any war we might contemplate would involve killing everyone.

A mere twenty years later, we were at it again.

In the United States, we celebrate November 11 as Veteran’s Day – a day to honor American service personnel from all branches, and their contribution to our present freedoms and way of life. Today I personally remember and acknowledge vets that I have known from the present conflict, the First Gulf War, Vietnam, Korea, and a bit of World War 2, although few of that crew remain, as well as all the years between the explicit fights, and the little brush fires of conflict so easily forgotten by history – Kosovo, Bosnia, Grenada, and the like.

But in the roots of my family history, I am a child of the Commonwealth, and in the Commonwealth, they still, nearly 100 years later, celebrate the Armistice. They celebrate an end to a war that knew no bounds of class, that swallowed lives and buried them in cloying mud and choking gas. They remember poets and pilots and the trenches…always the trenches.

More than that, though, they celebrate hope – the hope of Armistice. The hope of peace. Over and over again, the dream is broken, but still, every year, I believe that there is hope, a dream of peace that reaches into every human community. Abundance and wisdom and understanding and space enough that every human life can work itself out in dignity without a need for nations to slaughter nations.

There are more songs and more stories from the Great War than I can dare to name, but as we enter the holiday season, I share this following song, and I invite you to think of how God might help to foster peace – and use our hands to do it.

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The Conflict

Well, that was fun!

Not so much the temporary alterations in the sanctuary. For many of us, those were not fun. For others, they were a lot of fun.

No, what I really enjoyed – am enjoying still – is the discussion. 

For good or for ill, I am a well-educated Millenial, and that means that there is next to nothing I enjoy more than a really good conversation around issues of importance about which people of passion and heart disagree. Where there are perspectives and experiences and differences and similarities. In this whole discussion I have learned a whole heaping helping about where people came from, what they care about – and what’s important to me.

Some things I heard over the last few weeks:

The sanctuary this way feels like a theater.
The sanctuary this way feels much more intimate.
I like that I can see all my friends and neighbors – I’m looking at more than the backs of heads.
I dislike not knowing where to sit or look or how to do things like the Offering or Communion
I love the circle at the end being a real CIRCLE.
I don’t like how this was sprung on us.

Here’s the trick, says the post-modernist Millenial pastor – every perspective I hear on this is right. You all have points, many of which would not have occurred to me. There are things that I liked and didn’t like about the configuration – parts that were easier and parts that were harder. I reject the idea that there is one right way to worship Jesus Christ. There are familiar ways and unfamiliar ways, enthusiastic ways and quiet ways, traditional ways and innovative ways.

My questions for you all, and the question that I heard you expressing over the last few weeks, are these:

What are the most important things to St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in your worship?
How will you deal with the fact that not everyone wants or gets the same things out of worship? 

No matter how much you disliked this experiment, there were people who loved it. No matter how much you enjoyed this experiment, there were folks who found it really uncomfortable. The value in it, as far as I’m concerned, is in the conversation – the coming to understand one another. And in the coming to understand what St. Andrew, as a worshipping community, values in its worship. Things that came up in that conversation? Sacraments. Preaching. Music. Reverence. Joy. Accommodations for young and old alike. Community. Family. Cleave to those, my friends – the values that were shared whether you liked worship in the round or the proscenium arch (our more traditional formation).

In the not too distant future, I will be gone. I hope to leave with you all two legacies, if I do my work correctly. First, an awareness that you are the church. You are God’s people, seeking to worship God, and to be transformed by God, daily. You all get to decide what that looks like – no one else can decide it for you.

Secondly, a set of tools for managing conflict. At seminary I heard a statistic that has stuck with me: In successful couples of long-standing, 70% of their conflicts remain unresolved. That is to say, that fight over whether the toilet paper roll should spill over or under the roll is not actually settled one way or the other – but successful couples do a good job of managing their conflict.

So, too, the church. You will have conflicts again, brothers and sisters. About worship, about mission, about stewardship. Conflicts are an inevitable feature of human life. Can you, as a community, manage your conflict well? Can you listen respectfully to people with whom you disagree? Can you argue your viewpoint passionately without denigrating or denying someone else’s experience? Can you let the Presbyterian Process ™ grind to its conclusion, and stay committed to this community even when Session or the congregation votes differently than you do?

I have great confidence in this family of faith. This conflict has been managed appropriately from day one, with communication, clarity, and process. You all have the tools. Remember to use them in Christ’s Name, and you will carry on building God’s Kingdom here on earth.

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The Performance

I was reading through something just the other day, when I came across one of the statements of practical theology with which I disagreed most strongly in some time. I hit a fair amount of bad theology – I live on the internet, where the Bad Thinking Mines are – but this particular line really steamed my lobster, enough that I needed to comment on it.

The sentiment was that “worship is not a performance.”

Now, I need to be clear with my biases – I was a theater/performance kid in high school and early college. I’ve been to see more plays in my twenty-nine years than most people will go to their whole lives long, what with the season tickets at four Pacific Northwest theaters in the late nineties and early oughts. I love theatre. I love performance and performing. It’s a part of my matrix that I will never overcome.

Even so, I have a definite stake in the “anti-performance” school of worship, especially as it concerns music. I recall the first time I ever saw a “praise band” that was so loud and so overwhelmed with what they were doing, musically, that the intent of the remainder of the worshippers was unimportant. I’ve been known to deeply and genuinely enjoy what is still, somewhat erroneously, called “contemporary” worship – some of the best worship experiences of my life were one-guitar praise music on an overhead projector.

This is the thing with which I am not down. Where’s the center? The musicians.

So I agree with the sentiment this far – that worship is not, cannot be, should not be, a performance by leaders or musicians for congregations. The purpose of a pastor is not to entertain, but to facilitate or lead. The purpose of church musicians is to point our hearts to God, and not to show off. It is for this reason that I am not a church applauder – it shows up from time to time, but applause (distinct from clapping) in worship really doesn’t work for me.

That said, whoever says worship is not performance is dead wrong.

Every Lord’s Day that we gather together, we are performing*. We are preparing ourselves to do a thing, to act out once again a very ancient script. All the pieces of our service of worship are laid out, and we read and sing and listen and speak once again out of the old, old manuscript. Note those words – a service of worship. Who are we serving, with this service? Are we so self-centered to think that it is merely our own congregation? By no means!

Worship is a performance – it’s a show we’re putting on for God. That doesn’t make it less authentic, less real, or less heartfelt. If we can separate out our own egos and remember that everything we do, every word and gesture and note and breath and child’s cry is meant for – and beloved by – God’s ears, then perhaps we can approach God’s worship with a real attitude of joy.

I don’t know anyone that goes into a performance of any kind out of a sense of obligation. Every musician I’ve ever heard worth their salt, every actor, every athlete, started their career with joy. That’s the attitude I crave when I walk into the sanctuary on a Sunday morning, not just for me, but for everybody, that we’re going to dive into our performance with both feet. I don’t care how well we sing or how well I preach or how well the kids pay attention. I care about the fun – the joy of being on the stage God has set up for us.

So, as I remember paraphrasing what I heard as a child, it’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights. It’s time to meet our Savior in the worship show – tonight!

Amen!

*This, by the way, is one of the only arguments that I find compelling for appropriate dress in worship. It has nothing to do with “respect,” and everything to do with costume. 

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