We Want to See Jesus

Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B, March 22nd, 2015

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-12, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND


May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” says the LORD. Wouldn’t that be awesome? A world where everyone knew God, and loved him? The kind of “knowing” that God speaks of in this passage isn’t an academic kind of knowing. It’s not about memorizing facts or Bible verses or bits of theological interpretation and being able to trot them out on cue. It’s not about having all the answers ready to go for any question. No, this kind of “knowing” is about relationship. It’s about knowing God like you know your parents, or your spouse, or your child, or your best friend. It’s about living together and loving and working together through good times and bad. It’s the kind of knowing you only get through experience and trust and being there for one another.

But how do we have that kind of relationship with someone we can’t see? Sure, we can worship, study the Bible, pray, give generously of our time and treasure, but that doesn’t guarantee a relationship with God. There have been times in my life when I’ve done all of that and still felt spiritually empty, dry, wondering if God was listening and sometimes if he even existed. It’s possible to do everything right and still not feel that relationship. Of course, then there have been other times when God has felt so close to me I felt like I could reach out and touch him. Times when God felt like he was sitting beside me in worship, or speaking directly to me from the pages of Scripture. Every relationship goes through rough patches—but when my relationships with my family and friends go through rough patches, they’re still physically there, present, and it’s a whole lot easier to bridge that gap.

Of course, the thing is, even when I’m going through a spiritual rough patch, when I can’t see or feel God, he’s still there. I just can’t see him. And sometimes, it’s because I’m not looking in the right place. I get so wrapped up in my own ideas—in how I expect God to act, and do—that I can’t see him because he’s working in a way I didn’t expect. Other times it’s because I’m so distracted by all the stuff going on in my life that I’m just not paying attention. And still other times even looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t see God, and I just have to trust that he was there as he promised to be. When I’m going through a spiritually rewarding patch—when worship is renewing to my soul, when Scripture is enlightening, when prayers feel like they’re being heard—it’s easy to see God. It’s easy to feel that I know God, that our relationship is strong and that God’s teachings are written on my heart. But other times it’s not so easy. So I have a real feeling of kinship with the Greeks in our Gospel lesson who want to see Jesus, because sometimes I want to see him, too. I trust God when he says he’ll always be there, I just … want a little bit of reassurance.

Some Greeks in Jerusalem came to the disciple Philip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Don’t we all? Wouldn’t that be wonderful, to see Jesus in the flesh? To be able to ask him questions and learn directly from our Lord? What a great opportunity! I wonder what those Greeks thought when they actually did get to see Jesus. If they were following along behind Philip as he went to get Andrew, and then went up and told Jesus there were some people here to see him. Because if they did, if they heard what Jesus said to Philip and Andrew, I bet they were disappointed and confused. He started talking about dying and rising and bearing fruit and glory and service and being lifted up and … okay, after Jesus died and was resurrected, it would make sense, because that was what Jesus was talking about, but these guys don’t know what’s about to happen. They don’t know. They’re looking for God, or maybe they’re just looking for a miracle worker, and what they find is a guy who looks ordinary but says some crazy weird things. He’s not the kind of guy anybody was expecting. I wonder if they went home disappointed, thinking that they’d been wrong about this Jesus guy, after all. Because here’s the thing, even seeing Jesus in the flesh didn’t magically make peoples’ doubts and fears go away. It didn’t magically mean that they knew God in that deep relationship that Jeremiah was talking about.

Here’s the thing about relationships: they take time and effort and attention. They don’t generally just spring into perfection overnight. You have to work at them. You have to be willing to take the time to get to know someone, to learn and grow with them, and to put in the effort to fix things when they’re wrong. You have to be willing to choose love and forgiveness when people mess up. And God is always willing to do that. To take time for us, to reach out to us, to forgive us and love us and go through life with us and experience it with us.

But we aren’t always willing to do that. We aren’t always willing to take the time for God, to let go of our preconceived notions about God and experience God as he is. We aren’t always willing to take the time to learn about God, to follow God, to get to know God. Sometimes we get distracted. Sometimes we get confused, or angry that God didn’t do things the way we wanted him to. Sometimes life just gets in the way. Sometimes we just … don’t understand, and can’t trust what we don’t understand. And so we break that relationship. We turn away. For a lot of different reasons—some of them that seem pretty good at the time!—we break that relationship.

But here’s the thing. God doesn’t abandon us, even when we abandon him. God won’t force us, but he’ll always be there to offer us forgiveness and a place with him. God is always working to break down the barriers that keep us from seeing him and knowing him. God is always planting the seeds of a new relationship in us and in the world around us.


The power of the Word

Lent Wednesday 2—Scripture reading

March 19, 2014

Psalm 119:105-112, Isaiah 55:6-11, Matthew 13:7-13

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When you hear an American Christian talk about the Bible today, the most common phrase is something like this: “The Bible says it, I believe it.”  And who can argue with that?  But there’s an underlying attitude to that phrase that can be a big problem: it’s a tendency to treat the Bible, God’s Holy Word, like a textbook.  Textbooks explain objectively provable facts with clear explanations that one memorizes to regurgitate on a test.  You can generally boil the facts in a textbook into simple premises to memorize.  You don’t have to spend much time thinking about it; you don’t have to spend time wondering about how it affects your life, you don’t have to wrestle with anything difficult or contradictory.  Once you’ve learned the material, you don’t have to come back and re-read it because it will stay exactly the same.  If you can get a handout from the teacher with a summary of the material, you don’t even need to read the textbook itself, just memorize what the teacher wants to hear!  And if you come back to a textbook ten years after learning the material, well, you’re not going to learn anything you didn’t already learn from it.

The Bible is not that simple.  Isaiah says that God’s Word is like the rain and the snow that come down from heaven, bringing the water that things need to grow.  And God’s thoughts aren’t like our thoughts; they’re greater than we are.  Trying to boil them down into something simple and easy is kind of like trying to predict the weather.  We know that snow and rain will come, but they don’t come on cue.  And even the smartest people with the best equipment can’t completely predict the rain and the snow; the forces involved are just too complicated and too big.  And yet, the rain and the snow come, and the ground is nourished, and things grow.  And the things that grow give life to all of creation.  God sends out God’s Word just like he sends out the rain and snow, and things happen because of it.  Things grow, and that life and growth is a gift to the whole world.  That growth is not just something that can be memorized and put back on the shelf.

Or consider the parable of the sower—in this metaphor Jesus says that the Word is like a seed.  It gets spread everywhere—God doesn’t just give the seed to the good soil, he gives it to every patch of ground there is.  And in each of those places, something happens.  What happens on the path is not the same as what happens in the good soil; instead of new plants springing up from the seed, the seed on the path gets eaten by the birds.  But the birds are God’s creatures, too, beloved by God.  When the Word is spread, things happen.  Those things may not be what we anticipated or expected or chosen, but they are what God has chosen.

Or consider the psalmist’s words: God’s Word is a lamp lighting her way.  It’s not just passively sitting there, it’s doing something.  It’s making a difference in the psalmist’s life, and that difference changes depending on the circumstances.  Think about it: you need a flashlight when you’re taking a walk outside at night, and when the power goes out, or when you’re trying to do something difficult in a tight space.  Each time, that light is necessary, it opens up possibilities, but those possibilities are different depending on what’s going on in your life.

Every week I go to a Pastor’s Bible Study where we study the Scripture readings assigned for the coming Sunday.  For those of you who don’t know, many churches including our own use a three-year cycle of Bible passages for Sunday worship.  So the readings we heard last Sunday, the Second Sunday of Lent 2014, we’ll hear again in three years on the Second Sunday of Lent 2017.  They don’t change.  When people hear that, they ask, “so, do you just have three years’ worth of sermons and repeat them?”  No, I don’t; I couldn’t.  You see, when I read a passage from the Bible I usually notice something I haven’t noticed before, even if the passage is an old favorite.  The passage hasn’t changed, but God may be using those same words to say something different to me.  Or maybe it’s that I’ve changed, and with new ears I can hear more clearly God’s message for me.  Or maybe it’s that my life and circumstances have changed, and so I’m looking for different things.  Usually, it seems to be a combination of those three things.  And I’ve asked veteran pastors, retired pastors who had thirty years of preaching on the same texts and preached on each text at least ten times.  Yes, they all say, every time I come back to these passages I see something different.  The letters on the page haven’t changed, but God’s Word isn’t ink on dead trees, or even pixels on a screen: God’s Word is alive, and it does things, to us and to our world.

Instead of a textbook, the Bible is more like sitting on the couch with your grandparents and the family photo album.  You get all the family stories—who we are, where we come from, why we do the things we do.  What’s important to us, and why; what relationships have made us who we are today.  And you get all the little things—recipes and jokes and proverbs and such—at the same time.  It’s the wisdom of your family, passed on to you.  It gives you roots.  You can sit down with the family album many times, but the stories will be told differently each time, and sometimes there will be different versions of the same story.  The Bible is the photo album of the family of God, telling the stories about who we are and why we are the way we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going.  We need those stories to give our faith roots, to know who we are and why we are and where we came from and where we’re going.  You don’t get that by memorizing a couple of key verses.  You get that by reading and rereading it, by paying attention to what God’s doing with those words.  In that way, you open up possibilities for God’s Word to grow in you and shine a light on your path.  Thanks be to God for that light, for that growth.


On Prayer

Lent Wednesday 1–Prayer

March 12, 2014

 Psalm 28, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28, Matthew 6:7-13

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Imagine a family where the parents and children never talk.  The father gives long pronouncements on how the children should act, but never asks about what’s going on in their lives.  The children, in turn, only talk to the father when they need to borrow the car keys or want a new cell phone.  It’s not a very healthy family, is it?  The relationships between the father and the children are pretty weak.  The father doesn’t know what’s going on in his children’s lives, and the children know even less about their father.  They may love one another, but when trouble strikes, it’s going to be very hard for them to work together as a family.  And even when times are good, it will be very easy for them to drift apart without even realizing it because there just isn’t that much holding them together.

For many people, that’s what their relationship with God is like.  They’ll sometimes listen to God’s Word in worship, but they don’t really respond to it, and their prayers are mainly a laundry list of what they want or need in their life.  If they’re generous, they’ll pray for other people’s needs, too.  And if God is listening to their prayer, he’ll respond by granting their wishes.  If God doesn’t respond, then he must not be listening.  When you think about it, this kind of an attitude reduces God to one big vending machine up in the sky: you punch in the combination for what you want, and he gives it to you.  It’s not about building a relationship; it’s not about walking with God through the joys and sorrows of life, it’s about getting God to give you stuff.

But listen to the words from our reading from First Thessalonians.  Paul is concluding his letter with a bunch of general advice on how to be a Christian community.  There’s lots of stuff about how to build right relationships—respect the leaders, help the weak, always seek to do good to one another, greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss: it’s all about relationships.  And prayer is part of that!  “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”  Instead of just giving God a laundry list of things that need fixing, thank God for what you have, and rejoice with God and your fellow Christians.  And pray without ceasing—in other words, prayer isn’t just something you do right before bed and when things are truly dire, prayer is part of every breath you take and everything you do.

Consider the Lord’s prayer, the model of how to pray that Jesus gave to his disciples.  We recite it every week in church.  Think of it like a framework for prayer.  You start off with the address—hey, God, how are you?  And, by the way, the word Jesus uses, it’s not a formal word like “Father.”  It’s more like “Daddy.”  It’s not about calling on some distant father-figure, but rather about a close and loving relationship.  Then you move on to talking about God’s kingdom and God’s will—basically, what God is doing in the world.  Then you move on to your own concerns, not just what you want but everything that’s going on in your life—your need for daily necessities, the times you’ve messed up, the times you’ve done good, the concerns you have about your life, the temptations and the evils.  Then you bring the focus back around to God for a little bit, before ending the prayer.  When you think about it, it’s a lot like a conversation.  If you recorded one end of a conversation over the phone, it would probably sound a lot like that.

How many of you have seen the musical Fiddler on the Roof?  It’s a movie about a devout Russian Jew named Tevye and his family.  Tevye narrates the story partly through his conversations with God.  God doesn’t answer back verbally; there’s no dramatic voice from heaven.  But Tevye keeps up a constant stream of commentary: what he’s thinking, his joys, his hopes, his fears.  All directed towards God.  Of course, God knows what’s in Tevye’s heart already … but speaking those things to God helps Tevye build a relationship with God.  It is definitely a relationship.  Tevye may not always understand why God allows some things to happen, but Tevye knows God intimately and has confidence that God knows him just as well.  God isn’t just an afterthought of Tevye’s routine, or a vending machine to be manipulated.  God is a real presence in Tevye’s life, because Tevye is paying attention to God, and Tevye has confidence that God is listening whether Tevye’s requests are answered or not.  Tevye is sharing all of his burdens and joys with God, and in so doing he leaves space for God to be in his life.  And it doesn’t just affect Tevye; Tevye’s faith and love ripple out through his family and his community.

What would it be like if we all prayed that way, without ceasing, confident that God listens to us?  If we truly brought all our joys and hopes and fears and concerns before God, and not just our requests?  If we built a relationship instead of just treating God like a vending machine?  I think our faith would be stronger, and our love for God and one another would be stronger, too.  I pray that we may all learn to pray as Jesus taught us.


Why we do what we do

Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Psalm 51, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 103:8-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND


May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your father in heaven.”  Wow, what a text to read on Ash Wednesday!  After all, here we are to practice a piety that can only be seen by others.  We’re here to get ashes put on our foreheads, and we ourselves can’t see it.  Only other people can see it.  And here we are, reading a passage from the Bible where Jesus says, practice your spirituality in private, where people can’t see you!  It’s kind of ironic.

Jesus’ objection isn’t primarily about other people, though; it’s about us.  It’s about the reasons why we do what we do.  I’m sure you all know people who act all pious, all high-and-mighty, just because they want other people to think they’re a good Christian.  I know people who give money—and then trumpet it for all to hear, because they want everyone to know how generous they are!  I know people who go on lots of spiritual retreats—and then talk your ears off about how enlightening it was, so that you’ll know how spiritual they are!  It’s not the giving or the retreats that are the problem, though; it’s the reason they’re doing it.

It’s like people who buy big books just so they can put them on their coffee table so people will think they’re smart.  If you buy a book just to put it on display, you may indeed get people to think you’re smart … but that doesn’t mean you actually know anything more than you did when you bought the book.  So, Jesus says, if you pray long public prayers to prove you’re a good Christian, you may succeed in getting people to think you’re a good Christian … but it doesn’t impress God, because God knows darn good and well why you’re doing it.  If you give lots of money and make sure everyone knows it, yeah, people will think you’re very generous … but God will know you’re only doing it to score points.  And while it will score you points with your fellow human beings, it won’t score you points with God.

You see, for God, why we do things is almost as important as what we do.  God is more concerned with inward truths than public show, and unlike humans, God knows the inward truths of our souls even more than we ourselves do.  God wants us to pray because we love God so much we desire a deeper connection with him.  God wants us to give because we love others so deeply that we long to help them any way we can.  God wants us to read our Bibles because we long for God’s Word.  God wants us to fast because we long to purify our hearts and minds and bodies.  God doesn’t want us to do these things to score points, and he doesn’t want us to just do them by rote because they’re expected—instead, God wants us to use these tools to do what he gave them to us for: to draw closer to God and to one another, to build ourselves up as God’s children.

Lent is a time with many pious traditions, and many churches and communities and families have their own practices.  Ashes on Ash Wednesday; fish instead of meat on Fridays; giving up chocolate or candy.  But how often do we do these things just because that’s what we’re supposed to do?  I know that when I was a teenager, my family didn’t really have a tradition of giving up anything for Lent, and I decided to start just because it sounded cool.  I didn’t know why people gave things up for Lent; I just know that some religious people did, and I wanted to be one of them.  And I liked talking about it—oh, no, I can’t have chocolate, I gave it up for Lent.  That was pretty much all I got out of it, the first several years I did it.  I got to feel pious, and I got to make sure people knew I was committed to Jesus so much I’d even give up chocolate for him.  It didn’t change anything in me; it didn’t bring me closer to God, and it certainly didn’t bring me closer to anyone else.  It didn’t deepen my faith, and it didn’t deepen my understanding.  It just made me look good.  When you get right down to it, it was pretty empty.

As I got older, I realized that my giving up chocolate was empty.  Now, I could have just stopped doing it and assumed that giving stuff up for Lent was meaningless, and rolled my eyes at the people who did it.  Because I know a lot of people who do it for the same reasons I was doing it, and get nothing out of it.  But I didn’t.  Because there are a lot of other people for whom giving stuff up for Lent is a deeply spiritual experience.  There are people whose Lenten practices have helped their faith to grow and mature.  So what’s the difference?  I spent a long time studying and searching for the answer.

It turns out, there are two major things that turn ritual into deep experience.  The first is attention.  If you’re just doing something by rote and not paying attention, chances are you’re not going to get much out of it.  You have to take time and energy and focus on your actions.  We don’t give stuff up so that we can look holy—we give stuff up so that we have roadblocks in our daily life, time when we would normally break out the candy or turn on the television but instead take time to remember the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  You have to take the time to open yourself up to God, to see what God is trying to teach you.  If you take that time to contemplate and pray and listen to God, then all of a sudden giving something up for Lent can change from an empty gesture to something full of meaning.

But not everybody responds the same way to the same spiritual disciplines.  For some people, fasting—giving up something they cherish—is deeply meaningful.  For others, it isn’t.  For some people, adding in extra prayers or extra time reading their Bibles is more important than fasting.  And for others, time spent in service and charity is the most meaningful thing they can do during Lent.  But no matter what spiritual practices you choose to follow for the next forty days, they will only be effective if you give them your whole heart and attention, and open yourself up to the lesson they teach.

So tonight, as we receive the ashes, take time to think about it.  Clear your mind of all your daily concerns, all the nagging things that draw your attention to the world outside.  Remember who you are, and whose you are.  Remember that you are God’s beloved child, whom Jesus Christ died to save.  Remember that we are all sinners, and that the wages of sin are death.  Remember that the only way through death and into life is through Jesus Christ, but we can’t get there on our own.  Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.



A Forty-Day New Testament Reading Plan

If you read the Bible for just a half-hour a day, you can read the entire New Testament in only forty days.  This is perfect for Lent, which is forty days long.  You’ll notice that the schedule doesn’t simply start at the beginning of the New Testament and go straight through to the end.  The schedule is designed to make things easier, so that books that are similar are kept together (for example, the Gospel of John is followed by the Epistles of John) and the Epistles (“letters”) are scattered throughout.  The Gospels tell stories about Jesus and the Epistles are reflections on Christian theology and life.  Since the Epistles are generally harder to understand, interspersing them between the Gospels helps keep you from getting bogged down by them.

A note on translations: the King James Version is a traditional translation, but it’s harder to understand than most modern translations.  I would recommend using a modern translation such as the NRSV (which we use in church) or the NIV.  But any translation of the Bible is fine.  If you find listening easier or more convenient than reading, www.faithcomesbyhearing.com/ offers both downloaded and streaming versions of several translations for free, as do several other websites.

Day 1 is Ash Wednesday, which is March 5th this year.  Day 40 is Easter Saturday, the day before Easter, which is April 19th this year.  Sundays are not included in the tally, because they’re not technically part of Lent—every Sunday is a tiny celebration of Easter.  If you miss a day, don’t beat yourself up—just continue on from there.

Day   Texts                          # Verses         

1        Mark 1-4                           149
2        Mark 5-8                           174
3        Mark 9-12                         179
4        Mark 13-16                       176
5        1 Thessalonians                      
          2 Thessalonians                 136
6        Galatians                          149
7        Philippians & Colossians     199
8        Philemon & Ephesians        180
9        Matthew 1-7                      201
10      Matthew 8-12                    194
11      Matthew 13-18                  223
12      Matthew 19-24                  246
13      Matthew 25-28                  207
14      1 Corinthians 1-9              204
15      1 Corinthians 10-16           233
16      2 Corinthians                    256
17      Romans 1-8                     225
18      Romans 9-16                    208
19      Luke 1-3                          170
20      Luke 4-7                          182
Day   Texts                          # Verses

21      Luke 8-11                          214
22      Luke 12-16                        192
23      Luke 17-21                        213
24      Luke 22-24                        180
25      Acts 1-6                             193
26      Acts 7-10                           192
27      Acts 11-16                         216
28      Acts 17-22                         210
29      Acts 23-28                         196
30      1 Timothy & 2 Timothy         
          Titus                                 242
31      Hebrews 1-10                     209
32      Hebrews 11-13 & James      202
33      John 1-5                            213
34      John 6-10                          266
35      John 11-16                        236
36      John 17-21                        164
37      1 John & 2 John & 3 John     
          Jude                                 158
38      1 Peter & 2 Peter               166
39      Revelation 1-11                 194
40      Revelation 12-22               210

Ash Wednesday: The Wrong Reasons

Ash Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 103:8-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

There are many reasons for doing things in church.  One of them is good.  The others are not, and in our readings today we hear the difference.  The good reason is a sincere faith and a desire to draw closer to God.  Ultimately, everything we do together as Christians should flow from our faith and our relationship with God.  But all too often, it doesn’t.  All too often, we find ourselves doing things because we want to look pious, or because it’s what everyone else is doing, or just because it’s always been that way.  And from the outside, it looks much the same: you can’t tell just from looking at someone whether they’re in church on Sunday morning because they have a hunger for God, or if they’re just there because if they aren’t their family will nag them.  You can’t tell by looking at someone whether they’re teaching Sunday School because they got dragged into it, or because they have a desire and a call to share the news of Jesus.  You can’t tell just by looking at someone whether they’re wearing a cross of ashes on their forehead to help them remember their sinfulness, or because they want everyone they meet to see what a devout Christian they are.

If there is a time of the church year most prone to doing things for the wrong reasons, it is Lent.  There are many traditions we observe during Lent without really knowing why we do them, what they are about.  We do them by rote, or we forget about them entirely.  How many of you have ever given up chocolate for Lent?  Did you know why you did it?  I know I used to give up chocolate without really knowing why.

It isn’t surprising, then, that the ancient Hebrew people had the same problem.  They knew all the right rituals and ceremonies, and they did them—but they didn’t understand why they did them.  They went through the motions, but their hearts and souls were not changed.  They looked on their religious rituals as a recipe for prosperity.  “If we fast on the right days, and eat the right foods, and offer the right sacrifices, God will like us and give us what we want.”  So they were very strict at keeping the outer observances and rituals strong … and yet, all their actions brought them no closer to God.

So God sent Isaiah to tell them what God really wanted, and it wasn’t what they expected.  You see, God wasn’t concerned so much with the rituals as God was with their entire lives.  God didn’t want empty show; God wanted whole lives lived with justice and mercy.  It didn’t matter what they did on the Sabbath if they spent the rest of the week exploiting and ignoring the poor and vulnerable people around them.  How they treated their fellow human beings had a direct connection to their relationship with God.  All the rituals in the world couldn’t bring them closer to God if it didn’t also bring them closer to their neighbor.  The rituals were not a way to score points with God; they were supposed to be a guide for how to live in a right relationship with God and all of God’s creation.

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them,    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”  Jesus put it this way: when asked which was the greatest commandment, he answered with two: love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.  In other words, you can’t really separate love of God from love of neighbor.  Doing all the right rituals isn’t enough.  Being a faithful child of God means living our whole lives as children of God.  It means loving God and loving our neighbor, not just in words but in deed.

Jesus, too, had something to say about religious ritual, as we heard in our Gospel lesson.  We should give to those in need, and we should pray, and we should fast, but we should not do it to show off how pious we are.  Prayer, devotion, worship, giving, fasting, all of these should be things that point us to Christ.  The rites we practice should bring us closer to God and to our fellow human beings.  If you’re just going to church or giving up chocolate to impress others with how faithful you are, how good a Christian you are, you may well succeed in impressing the people around you—but God knows the difference.

In Lent, we prepare for Easter by acknowledging our sins, and our need for the salvation that comes through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  We prepare for Easter by drawing closer to God, and fasting from those things that draw us away from our fellow human beings.  We prepare for Easter by living out those things we know we should do but seldom take the time for.  We prepare for Easter by taking a good, hard look at our lives, and seeing what needs to change to live as children of God.  There are many rituals that can help us do this; the ashes we are about to receive are one of them.  But the rituals are not the point; the rituals are signs to point us to Christ.

As you consider what you should do this Lent to prepare for Easter, here are some things to ask yourself: When I wake up on Resurrection Sunday morning, how will I be different?  Is there a habit or sin in my life that repeatedly gets in the way of loving God with my whole heart or loving my neighbor as myself? How do I address that habit over the next 40 days?  Is there anyone in my life from whom I need to ask forgiveness or pursue reconciliation? What practical steps can I take to carve out time for daily contemplation?  What are some things in my life that I tell myself I need but I don’t?  Can I give one or two of them up for 40 days?  Why am I giving this particular thing up? How does giving it up draw me closer to God and prepare me for Easter?  What am I going to tell myself when self-denial gets hard?  Is it necessary or helpful for me to share the nature my fast with others or should I keep it private? What do the ashes mean to me this year? What does baptism mean to me this year?

We are all sinners.  We do things we shouldn’t, and we fail to do the things we should.  We ignore the needy around us, and we ignore God’s presence in our lives.  Too often, we worship God and study God’s Word out of habit or because we want to look good.  And yet, God loves us still.  We are not worthy to be children of God, and yet God claims us as God’s own.  Our sin and brokenness lead only down to the grave, but the grave does not have the final say, because Christ died for us.  Christ died for us, and rose again, and we are tied to his death and resurrection.  We will die, yes; we are dust, and to dust we will return.  But we will rise in Christ our Savior.


2012 Lenten Devotional Calendar and other resources

Lent is a season in which we practice giving up something important in order to refocus our lives on God.  By fasting from certain things, we practice dying to ourselves.  And by refocusing our lives, living to God, we intentionally choose things that help us become the kind of people God desires us to be.  This calendar suggests daily practices for fasting-from and living-to during the Lenten season.  It is suitable for both adults and children.  (Adapted from the Mars Hill 2012 Lenten Calendar and other resources.)

Lenten Calendar 2012

My friend Ariel Ertsgaard, a youth and family minister, has a reflection on Lent and some tips for experiencing Lent with children.

Doctor Chuck DeGroat, a psychologist and pastor, has a reflection on lamentation–mourning, weeping, crying out to God–that I found very thought-provoking in this Lenten season.  From Kleenex Theology to Messy Spirituality: The Biblical Invitation to Honest Lament.

Walter Brueggemann, a great modern theologian, speaks on a similar note about pain and art and being honest with God and one another in Schooled In Denial. (Note that this is part of a longer video; the link is to a clip from it which is available for free.)

Are you in the habit of making New Year’s Resolutions?  Promises to yourself that in the coming year you’ll do something differently?  Many people use New Year’s Resolutions to try and get themselves to live healthier lives: exercise regularly, eat more fruits and vegetables, spend less money on frivolous things, spend less time worrying.  Often the idea is that you pick something that you can do a little bit at a time—for example, exercise for fifteen minutes three times a week—that will add up.  Exercising once won’t do much good, but if you get in the habit and do it regularly, your body will be healthier in the long run.

For Christians, Lent is a time to make (and carry out!) resolutions.  But instead of benefiting your waistline or your pocketbook, Lenten resolutions are designed to benefit your soul.  We call them Spiritual Disciplines, because they take discipline and attention to do them, and because they make us better disciples.  (Did you know that “discipline” and “Disciple” come from the same root word?)  Like New Year’s resolutions, if you can do just a little bit each day, it can make a huge difference in the long run.

One of the most important spiritual disciplines is prayer.  This is one of the foundations of our lives as Christians.  Prayer is about taking time out of our daily lives to lift our concerns and our joys to God, and to listen for God’s Word for us.  Awesome things can and do happen when we pray regularly and sincerely.  Prayer is a way of connecting to God, and allowing God to lead and change us.  (An interesting note: This isn’t just on a spiritual level.  Scientists who study human brains have scanned the brains of people who pray at least fifteen minutes a day at least three days a week, and found that you can actually see things working differently when they pray!)

Reading the Bible regularly (especially with other people) is another important discipline.  The Bible is the story of how God has worked in the world from beginning to end, from Creation to Revelation, and everything in between.  The Bible tells our story, the story that has shaped us as a community, the story of our ancestors in the faith.  The Bible tells the story of how God made us, loved us, saved us, and will always be there in good times and bad.  When we read the Bible together, and talk about it, we can share insights that we couldn’t have thought of on our own.

If you’re not used to reading the Bible, here are a few tips to make it easier.  Use a modern translation of the Bible in a good study version with helpful notes to explain things that might be difficult to understand.  Start with the Psalms or with one of the books that is mostly stories (for example, the Gospels, Genesis, Exodus, Ruth, Jonah, Judges, Kings, Chronicles) because they’re easier to read.  Say a short prayer before beginning to read, then dive in.  As you read, ask yourself questions:  Does this remind you of anything in your own life?  How would you feel if you were one of the people in the story?  Does this connect with any other Bible stories you remember?  Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and be open to new insights.

Worship is a spiritual discipline that many people practice during Lent.  Worship brings people together to praise God.  It’s one of the foundations of our life together in the community which is the congregation.  Worship can draw us out of our regular, ordinary lives into participating in the presence of God in our midst.  When we regularly attend worship, we are shaped by our participation and are refreshed and strengthened to live as God’s people.  During Lent there are more worship services offered than usual.  I encourage you to attend them regularly.

Fasting is a discipline that is often misunderstood.  Fasting is not about making yourself miserable for the sake of being miserable, nor is it a way of showing your piety publicly by loudly proclaiming what you’ve given up for Lent.  Instead, fasting is about simplicity.  We live very crowded, complicated, busy lives these days.  What in your life separates you from God and from the people around you?  By paring down to the essentials, by getting rid of the things that distract us (even if only temporarily) we provide a space for reconnecting with God and with our fellow human beings.  We give ourselves time and space to be, to get back to the essentials.  If nothing else, we force ourselves to realize just how much of our time and attention is consumed by distractions.  One last thing:  if what you are giving up normally costs you money (eating at restaurants, TV or internet, gas, junk food, etc), try giving away that money that you save by not doing it.

Charity can also be a spiritual discipline.  Christ calls us to love one another as he has loved us, and when God blesses us, God asks us to share that blessing with others.  And yet, we so often walk right by people in need without even noticing them.  Sometimes the needs are monetary, but often what is most needed is a gift of time and attention.  Charity can look like a lot of things.  For example, it can be a morning spent volunteering at the Food Pantry or delivering homemade soup to someone who has been ill.  Charity can be participating in fundraising for local events, or national and international organizations such as Lutheran World Relief, ELCA World Hunger, ELCA Disaster Relief, and many others.  Monetary gifts are most effective when they are combined with our time and attention and our prayers.

Praying, Bible reading, worship, fasting, and charity are the most important spiritual disciplines.  When we practice them regularly, we can live out our discipleship more fully.

Train yourself

1 Timothy 4:7b-8 Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.

A few years ago, I read a book on how to pray–it was about traditional forms and things that could be done to focus your prayer life.  It was helpful to me at the time, but that’s not what I remember most about that book.  No, what I remember most about that book was the blank incomprehension my boyfriend had at why I would be interested in it.  Now, he was a very “spiritual” person, but he believed that prayer should be freeform, spontaneous, “from the heart,” as if any sort of attention to when and how you prayed somehow made it less genuine.  And that got me thinking: why do we do the things we do?  I felt that having patterns and routines and being mindful of my faith life was an enhancement.  More than that, I needed it to keep me on track, to keep me from sliding off apathetically into forgetfulness.  But I couldn’t explain why.

Years later, at seminary, I heard the term “spiritual disciplines” for the first time.  And a lightbulb went on.  Now, spiritual disciplines sound a little scary.  Or maybe like the kinds of self-mortification medieval monks did, the Christian version of extreme sports.  But that’s not what spiritual disciplines are.  “Discipline” and “disciple” come from the same root word–discere, to learn, discipula, student.  A disciple is someone who has discipline.  To learn something, you have to practice it.  That’s what spiritual disciplines are about–practices that help us learn.  Spiritual disciplines are things we do regularly that cultivate our faith life.  Cultivate–a growing word.  A gardener doesn’t make his or her plants grow directly; only God can do that.  But a gardener can create the conditions that support God’s work by tilling the soil, pulling weeds, watering, fertilizing, pruning.  Think of spiritual disciplines as the equivalent of what a gardener does: you are preparing the soil of your mind and body for the faith that God gives and causes to grow in you.  You can’t create faith … but you can let your faith get choked out by weeds and neglect.

Here’s another metaphor: if you were going to run a marathon, you wouldn’t just decide to do it and go out and run 26 miles the next day, would you?  And if you tried, you’d never be able to finish.  If you wanted to run a marathon you’d start training, eating right, run regularly for slowly-increasing distances, probably join a group that was also preparing so you could support one another, or else run with a friend.  Think of the Christian life as a marathon–it can seem very long and hard, but if you train for it, if you prepare, even what seems impossible can be done.  Spiritual disciplines are the exercise and training that helps us run the marathon of life.

Here’s a list of some traditional spiritual disciplines:

  • Prayer
  • Singing
  • Fasting
  • Giving
  • Meditation
  • Hospitality
  • Worship
  • Travel/Pilgrimage
  • Service
  • Journaling (keeping a diary of your faith life)
  • Reading the Bible or other devotional material
  • Studying the Bible with others

What kinds of spiritual disciplines do you use?  Do you do enough (however much that may be for you), or does your faith life fall short?

Becoming Disciples

When I was in high school, I decided to start giving up chocolate for Lent.  “Chocolate?” my aunt said when she heard.  “Aren’t you supposed to give up something a bit more … penitential?”

“What could be more penitential than giving up chocolate?” I asked.  “I’ll certainly be thinking about it all the time!”

In many Christian traditions, it is traditional to fast from something, to give it up, during the season of Lent, particularly delicious or sweet foods.  That’s where Mardi Gras comes from, and why we have pancakes right before lent–the idea was to have a big party where you used up all the stuff in the house that you would be fasting from, particularly forms of fat such as butter, shortening, lard, etc which were used in the making of pancakes.  That way nothing was wasted and you wouldn’t be tempted to break your fast.  Many of these traditions are still practiced today, but we don’t always think about why we’re doing it.

So why do we fast?  And why do we do it in Lent, specifically?  Well, Lent is a time of preparation for Holy Week and Easter.  It’s supposed to get us ready for crucifixion and resurrection.  It’s a time to remember what Christ did for us.  It’s a time to remember that we are sinners, and that our sins are so great that Christ had to die to save us from them.  It’s a time to take a good, hard look at one’s own life and the life of the community and acknowledge the things that are broken and ask for God’s help in restoring them.  It’s a time to build your relationships with God and with your fellow human beings.  It’s a time to practice spiritual disciplines–fasting, praying, meditation, etc.–that help us grow spiritually.

Fasting, giving things up for Lent, shouldn’t be about being ostentatiously pious or just doing things because it’s traditional.  It should be a way of taking stock of your life and paring back the things that you don’t need, that distract you from God.  It can be a way of reminding yourself what the season is all about–for example, every time I was presented with the opportunity to each chocolate when I gave it up, it was a time for me to remember not only what I was giving up, but why I was doing it.  Fasting is not automatically a way to good spiritual health.  It should be accompanied by an attitude of prayer and a focus on what God has done for us and in us and continues to do for us and in us.  From my own experience, when I focused on what I was missing while I was fasting and not on God, I didn’t get any spiritual growth or blessing from it, I just felt deprived.  When I focused on God’s love for me, on my repentance for my sins and the grace of God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ, then fasting became the catalyst to spiritual growth and health.

Fasting is one of the spiritual disciplines.  Disciplines–that’s from the same root word that disciple comes from.  Spiritual disciplines are tools we can use to help us become better disciples when used regularly and intentionally.  They can help us stay on our path following our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  They can help us break down the barriers that we put up to the work of God in our lives.  There are internal spiritual disciplines–prayer, fasting, meditation, study–and external spiritual disciplines–simplicity, stewardship, evangelism, and others.  All have the potential to help us as disciples.  This Lent, consider regularly practicing some form of spiritual discipline as we prepare for the death and resurrection of our Lord.