Archives: Lent

March Madness Salvation

We’re right in the thick of March Madness, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

As an alum, I am a diehard Kansas Jayhawks basketball fan, and Kansas has created a remarkable March Madness tradition in the last ten years.

I don’t have any stats to back this up, but just from anecdotal evidence, KU seems to be the most highly ranked team that chokes the hardest every year in the tournament.

The higher seed we get, the lower seed we lose to with the most humiliating upset.

Sports analysts around the country have wracked their brains trying to explain this phenomenon, how Kansas can lead the nation in multiple categories for an entire season and then have a sustained nervous breakdown on national television for two hours straight during March Madness.

Well, I know the answer.

It’s all my fault.

The most intense phase of March Madness often coincides with Holy Week, and my priorities that week have often gone badly off track.

The reason Kansas keeps choking in the tournament is because I am engaging in gross blasphemous idolatry of basketball during Holy Week.

That’s the awful truth.

Every year the Jayhawk fight song and the Rock Chalk Chant start to blend with “Lift High the Cross” and “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded” in my head, and the moral battle is on once again.

If you’d like a halftime report on how it’s going this year, so far the score is Whitney’s Jayhawk Idolatry 1, Whitney’s Priestly Integrity, 0.

Scorekeeping is something we tend to do in all areas of our lives, and our spirituality is no exception. Continue reading

John 3:17: In The Pink

One thing I think you have to grant us: Davies and I are pretty in pink.

You see that this morning, Davies and I are wearing pink vestments. I get the pink set for the 8 a.m. service, and he will wear them for the 10 a.m.

They were a gift to me from a former parishioner after she heard me in a sermon lament that I’d always wanted to wear pink vestments for Rose Sunday, but had never had the chance.

Then they went in a closet and I never remembered to bring them to church for the correct Sundays either in Advent or Lent. But this year was the year!

And Davies has been a hilariously good sport about it as you might have noticed if you saw his fabulous picture on Facebook also wearing my pink heart-shaped sunglasses.

So why are we wearing pink today?

Well, the official name for the 4th Sunday of Lent is Laetare Sunday, and this Sunday has several traditions around it.

“Laetare” is the first word of the traditional Latin introit to the mass for this Sunday: “Laetare Jerusalem: et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam,” which means, “Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her.” That’s Isaiah 66:10.

It’s also called Refreshment Sunday, and it’s a chance to take a break from our Lenten solemnity. It’s like an oasis in the desert, or a chance to leave the wilderness, come back into town, and have a couple of beers at the local watering hole.

Christians have realized for a long time that as noble as our aspirations of self-denial and fasting are in Lent, we’re human, and we need a break. Forty days is a long time.

The gospel says that Jesus had angels ministering to him while he was in the desert. We don’t get that, but we do get a day off before the last push toward Holy Week.

Given that it coincides with losing an hour of sleep changing over to Daylight Savings Time, we could all probably use a break today.

Today is also known as Mothering Sunday in the Church of England, which could mean one of two things. It was a day when servants were let off work to go home and see their mothers, or alternatively, it’s a day to return to your mother church, the parish you attended in your childhood.

It’s also called Rose Sunday, which is where we get the pink. Continue reading

Zeal For Your House Will Consume Me

Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple is an act of premeditated rage.

In our haste to divorce ourselves from the old, punitive image of a wrathful and vengeful God, we have at times come too close to domesticating Jesus.

We picture him with perfect hair in a clean robe always speaking softly and reasonably.

If we try to think about Jesus being angry, we might remember this story, when he drives the moneychangers from the Temple.

But our mental image of Jesus in this situation is him flying off the handle, losing his temper and abruptly descending into a violent tirade.

It turns out neither scenario is true. Jesus is not the mealy-mouthed meek and mild Sunday school picture, but nor is he a two-year-old throwing a tantrum.

Jesus sees what is happening in the Temple and decides, ahead of time, to use his holy anger as a sign to the people.

We know this because of John 2:15. It says, “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.”

“Making a whip of cords.” Jesus didn’t just show up at the Temple one day and start kicking over tables on the spur of the moment.

He made a decision to express his anger, and then went aside to make a whip of cords.

That took time. That took effort. He had to find supplies, for heaven’s sake.

How do you make a whip of cords? I don’t know, but it’s not something you toss off in ten minutes.

Jesus had a message to communicate, and he chose this dramatic and visceral action, almost like performance art, to convey it.

He loosed the reins on his passion and emotion for his people, and let his heart show.

It is at once intimidating—to think of Jesus committing premeditated violence, however justified—and deeply moving to see his vulnerability. Continue reading

New Names: Learning the Gospel From Trans People

You know that phrase, “That’s a game changer”? It signifies a new element in a situation that changes it completely.

I wonder if we could coin a new phrase, one that would have a lot of resonance in the Bible: “That’s a name changer.”

We see some important instances of God changing people’s names throughout the Bible, and a name change always signifies deep personal transformation for the person affected.

Think of Jacob being renamed Israel, or Saul becoming Paul.

(Note: God did not change Paul’s name specifically, it was a gradual shifting throughout the Biblical texts over time. “Saul to Paul” is a shorthand for Paul’s changed life rather than a divine event like the other name changes.)

Those name changes require the person to leave behind an old identity and everything that went along with it—the good and the bad.

In fact, the change being demanded of Jacob and Saul was so significant that neither they nor others would recognize them after the fact.

That’s part of why they needed a new name.

Their names were changed also because they were being sent out on a new mission. They had important new work to do, and taking on a new name was part of what helped them set out to do that work.

The old self that they had, with all of its baggage and history, was unequal to the task. They needed a fresh start to take on challenging new work.

This was definitely the case for Abram in our story from Genesis today.

He was 99 years old—that’s no time to pull up stakes, set off on a long journey, and found a new nation!

He couldn’t do it as Abram, he had to become Abraham.

And God’s renaming of him was part of how God equipped him to take on the task.

Few of us have been literally renamed, but doubtless the work God has called us into in different seasons of our lives has required us to take on a new identity, one that may look unfamiliar to our friends and family.

How consciously and intentionally have you received the new name God gives you when God leads you to new ministry? Continue reading

With the Wild Beasts

You’re going to croak. And there’s an app for that.

My friend Suzanne told me about this simple smartphone app called “We Croak” that’s a fabulous spiritual tool.

At five random times throughout the day, it sends you a notification on your smartphone reminding you that you will one day die. It gives you a quote on death by an artist or spiritual teacher or public figure.

The point is to help us put the everyday concerns that dominate our minds into perspective.

When you are reminded that your life is short, your time on this earth is limited, and in the end, very little will remain of your daily preoccupations once you’re gone, things lessen in intensity a bit.

You’re reminded of what really matters.

You step back from the everyday grind, the sometimes relentless stress of trying to keep up with your to-do list, and remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

There is a rich tradition of meditating on mortality in both the Christian and the Buddhist traditions.

Human life is fleeting, but we are all too prone to waste our precious time on small, petty concerns. We can’t help it. The urgent takes over the important, and the years fly by.

But we have an entire church season devoted to contemplating our mortality.

It’s a ready-made tool to think about how we’re using the time we’ve been given, and the best part is that we take it on together. Lent is a communal journey.

There’s no better place to wrestle with the great questions of life and death and eternity, of sin and redemption and love, than in our Christian community.

And it turns out that a simple tool on a smartphone could help us keep those deep questions a little closer to the forefront of our minds. Who says technology and spirituality are diametrically opposed?

A line from our gospel today caught my eye.

Mark’s account of Jesus’ time in the wilderness is so sparse that it’s frustrating. We have to use our imaginations to fill in the blanks.

Jesus gets baptized, he goes into the desert, and then he’s back in Galilee, beginning his public ministry and preaching.

And all we get to describe that pivotal wilderness period is two paltry sentences from Mark: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

The phrase that jumped out at me as I read it this time was “he was with the wild beasts.”

That sounds kind of intimidating.

What was that really like? Continue reading

Friday: My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This is the cry of Jesus from the Cross.

He is broken, abandoned, devoid of any and all hope or strength.

He is at the farthest extreme of his ability to withstand suffering, his mind and body tormented almost beyond what he can bear.

And worst of all, he can no longer feel the loving presence of his Father that has sustained him for his thirty-three years on this earth.

But the remarkable thing is that he is not the first person to have spoken these words from the valley of the shadow of death.

Jesus is actually quoting Psalm 22.

The psalmist cried out from his own suffering, uncounted generations before Jesus arrived on earth, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This imbues Jesus’ voice from the Cross with even deeper significance.

These words are the cry of his tradition, the cry of his people, and also the cry of his barren heart.

All to whom he sought to give himself have deserted him, until finally he cannot even feel the Father.

This was no doubt the most wretched and almost involuntary cry of the human side of Jesus, truly feeling like he was alone and God had forsaken him.

But consider what Jesus in his divinity might also have been doing purposefully.

These words are verse 1 of Psalm 22. The Jews gathered around the Cross, Mary, John, and the others, would have known the verses that followed.

In fact, those verses would have leapt immediately to their minds.

And Peter and the others who had run away would no doubt hear the story later, that Jesus said these words from the Cross moments before his death.

What if these words were, along with the truthful convulsion of his spirit in pain, also a message from Jesus to his followers, and thereby to us? Continue reading

Thursday: The Cock Crows

Jesus predicts it in three different ways. It happens three times. And Jesus spends three days in the tomb because of it.

Peter’s denial of Jesus.

It’s a pivotally important moment that sometimes we lose track of in the accelerating cascade of events following the Last Supper that leads to Calvary.

But it contains such spiritual riches for us, even though it forces us to confront our own deepest fears and weaknesses.

Let’s begin by reflecting on Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial. The accounts in Matthew and Mark are almost identical but for one or two words. Here’s how Mark relates it:

“Jesus said to them, ‘You will all become deserters; for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.’ Peter said to him, ‘Even though all become deserters, I will not.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ But he said vehemently, ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And all of them said the same.”

John’s account is briefer, albeit with a haunting rhetorical question from Jesus:

“Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus answered, ‘Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterwards.’ Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”

And then we have Luke, one of the synoptics but oddly the outlier in how he portrays this incident:

“‘Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!’ Jesus said, ‘I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.’”

They vary in their details, but the painful crux of the matter remains the same: Peter will deny Jesus three times before the cock crows.

Peter cannot fathom it.

Hasn’t he been faithful to Jesus these three long years?

Didn’t he leave his home and family and livelihood for Jesus?

Hasn’t he stuck by Jesus when they were hungry and homeless on the road? When the crowds crushed them and demanded to be healed, fed, taught, long after Jesus and the twelve were completely exhausted?

Hasn’t Peter been faithful even now, when the religious authorities are closing in?

Why would Peter abandon him now—Peter, who was the one to proclaim Jesus the Messiah and was called the Rock of the Church for it? Continue reading

Wednesday: For the Sake of the Joy

The remarkable truth about Holy Week that we find so hard to grasp is the fact that everything and everyone is redeemable.

There is no tragedy so great, no action so unjust, no person so evil that he or she cannot be redeemed by the saving work of Jesus Christ.

We say we believe that, but most of the time we are carrying around grudges and shame and wounds that we, in our heart of hearts, don’t think Jesus can heal.

Because why would he want to? Why would he bother with redeeming our sins when he could just sweep in on a white horse and carry us off to heaven?

Well, Jesus doesn’t work that way, and we’re never going to understand his work on the Cross if we don’t understand what redemption is.

Sometimes people think that redemption is erasure of bad things.

It’s just gone, like it never happened.

But that is not redemption.

God is not doing a retroactive censorship of our lives, blacking out the parts that we’d rather not remember.

Redemption is a threefold process. It consists of forgiveness, illumination, and healing.

Erasure, elimination, forgetting and cutting out the deeds of sin and pain does not happen at all in redemption.

They’re still there. But they are fundamentally changed.

Let me explain. Continue reading

Palm Sunday: Triumph, Need and Betrayal Laid on the Altar

It all begins today.

Today is the first day of Holy Week, the beginning of our journey in real time with Jesus from the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem all the way to the Cross on Calvary.

How do we get from one to the other?

What happens between now and then for everything to go so terribly wrong?

What happens to us to drive us from hailing him as our matchless king with the crowds on Palm Sunday, to crying “Crucify him!” with those same crowds on Good Friday?

Let’s start from the beginning.

We open our worship today with the Palm Gospel, Matthew 21:1-11, which tells the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a colt, with the crowds spreading their cloaks on the ground in his path, waving palms and shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

This is the proclamation of Jesus as the King of the Jews, his primary identity in Matthew.

This is his “election by acclamation,” so to speak, his people and his nation recognizing him as the fulfillment of prophecy and the answer to prayer.

But as we know, the crowd’s love will not last. Why?

There were probably a number of reasons.

Some people were furious when Jesus failed to usher in an armed revolution against the hated oppressor, Rome.

Some took issue with his public affirmation of his identity as the Son of God, calling it blasphemous.

Others probably simply got caught up in the lust for violence that can be hair-trigger in a crowd of people, not to mention one already under the pressure of political subjugation.

I think we who comfortably go about our calm and civilized lives vastly underestimate our own capacity for violence in a large, anonymizing group of people.

And it does not take very sophisticated manipulation to turn a crowd into a mob.

What was in Jesus’ heart as he heard the shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”?

Did he truly feel welcomed and loved?

Or did he already know that this outpouring of passionate devotion by so many was a vain and hollow farce?

Did those words “hosanna” and “blessed” form a bitter echo of the words the angels and his mother spoke at his birth?

I picture his face, and I do see happiness. But it cannot cover up an underlying grief.

The question of Palm Sunday is a deep and painful one, and we must reckon with it honestly if we seek to enter Easter Sunday with any integrity.

It is the reality of our own faithlessness.

Can we face the truth that we are the ones who betray Jesus? Continue reading

The Consequences of Waiting Upon the Lord

The story of Lazarus—it’s one of the most fascinating in the Bible.

I love this story for so many reasons.

I love it for its place in the unfolding of the tender and devoted friendship between Jesus and the siblings of Bethany.

Jesus, Lazarus, Mary and Martha—we might call them the Fantastic Four!

We know there were many more encounters between them that we don’t see recorded in the gospels for the level of friendship they express for each other to be as real and deep as it appears.

After all, the message from the sisters to Jesus about Lazarus’ illness was, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

That is not a reference to a casual acquaintance.

No doubt there were occasions of Lazarus and Jesus out roaming across the hills, talking of spiritual topics for hours, while Mary and Martha prepared the feast they would enjoy together later at home.

Or perhaps vice versa—maybe Jesus and Lazarus took their turn in the kitchen as well!

Late night dinners, hours of conversation, thinking and praying together about God’s work in the world—they were intimate spiritual companions.

They might even have been friends before Jesus began his ministry, or at the very least, from very early on in it.

Mary, Martha and Lazarus have seen Jesus grow into his ministry.

As he has ranged farther and farther afield to heal and teach, still the little house in Bethany remains a home base, where he returns for his own healing and renewal.

Drained by his work, he can always recharge with his three dear friends.

Because while they are his followers, they are always first and foremost his friends.

In fact, their friendship is so well-known among the disciples and other followers of Jesus that the whole community is aware that Jesus would want to hear of Lazarus being gravely ill.

The message from Martha and Mary reaches him quickly, and here we have the first jarring note in the story. Continue reading

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