Archives: Lent

How to Drink of Living Water

I’m just going to cut right to the chase on this text: Jesus is undermining us and our priorities yet again, because he loves us too much to let us continue in our self-protective delusions.

Every time I think I’ve got him figured out, he knocks me over once again with his subversive and all-encompassing love.

The woman at the well is one of John’s most beloved stories.

We have a woman who is trapped in an unenviable social situation, the origins of which we do not clearly understand.

She has to come to well to draw water in the heat of the day rather than the cool of the early morning. This is a clue that she is ostracized from the company of the other women in town, respectable women, who would come as a group to draw water at dawn.

Why is she not respectable? We don’t know, but more than likely it is a result of gender-based shame imputed to her.

She may be penalized for exercising sexual autonomy, i.e. being a “loose woman.”

Or she may have been passed around from husband to husband to finally a man who doesn’t even bother to marry her because she is barren, unable to have children, the other major source of shame for women in her society.

Even without knowing her story and its shades of disgrace in the eyes of her culture, the gospel says the disciples are shocked to find Jesus talking with a woman, any woman.

Regardless of what she has been through, and we understand that it cannot have been pleasant, she has enough pluck in her to enter into conversation with an unaccompanied adult male whom she quickly discovers is a Jew.

This reality alone would have further diminished her already precarious position in society.

But there is a spark of curiosity in her that responds to Jesus and answers the invitation to go deeper with him.

She is thirsty for more than what she can find at the bottom of that well, and so she asks.

In fact, she more than asks, she requests, demands, even: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

How often do we share our need with Jesus so un-self-consciously?

And here is what fascinates me. The woman asks Jesus for the Living Water, and what does he give her?

One would expect him to give her comfort, understanding, affection, healing, assurance of salvation.

But he gives her none of these.

She asks Jesus for the Living Water, and he gives her truth. Continue reading

What Are You Resisting?

One of the most helpful spiritual questions I was ever asked is this: “What are you resisting?”

I can’t remember where I first read or heard that question, Pema Chodron maybe? Something Buddhist, I’m sure.

But it has remained in my life as one of the most fruitful seeds of prayer in the midst of pain or anxiety I’ve ever found.

What is it that I’m resisting?

The question has the power to stop me in my tracks in real time, in the very moment of my being angry at the world.

And asking the question also asks a second, implicit question: and why are you resisting it?

The subsequent questions ask themselves.

Is it worth resisting?

What would happen if you let this go?

Is what you’re resisting truly a threat to you, or simply an inconvenience, a discomfort, an irritant?

I’m usually awakened at that point to how easily and completely I’ve given myself over to the traditional three corrupting influences of “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” and by that I mean my selfish desires, my loud body and its preferences, and my cranky, needy ego.

I’m usually resentful of a phone call I need to make or a meeting I have to attend, unable to accept that I really will feel better if I eat well and exercise, or mad at my perception that someone is treating me dismissively or condescendingly.

What am I resisting? Trivial, trivial things.

And in the process I am resisting the glimpses of God that God is always ready to reveal to me in the midst of my trivial circumstances, if I would only open to them.

What are you resisting? Continue reading

Springtime in the Desert

Let’s stop for a moment and think about our stereotypes of Lent. What words come to mind for you?

“Dull, dreary, and sad,” some might say.

“Long and boring,” others might say.

“Sin and death and the day of vengeance of our God!” others might crow triumphantly.

I had one parishioner at a former church, a 3-year-old, who told me solemnly on Ash Wednesday, “I don’t like Lent because it makes me sneeze.” As good a characterization as any, I suppose.

Would it surprise you to know that the origin of the word “Lent” is the Old English word for “springtime”?

Yes, we do talk about sin and mortality in Lent, and there is an appropriate solemnity for doing that.

But if you think that’s the whole story of Lent, you’re missing out.

Lent is springtime in the desert.

And we are given an amazing opportunity each year to take part in it.

Let’s think about that strange juxtaposition of terms: springtime in the desert.

Both parts matter. It’s not just springtime—new life and blooming flowers and singing birds.

And it’s not just the desert—emptiness and challenge and wandering in search of sustenance.

It’s springtime in the desert.

What does that mean for us in our spiritual lives? Continue reading

Friday: Stigma/Stigmata

Today is the Day of Truth.

Today there is nowhere to hide from reality.

There is no escape from the awful, damaging depth of human sin, but there is also no escape from the life-changing knowledge of the lengths that God will go to in order to save us, in order to bring us home.

Today is a day for looking at your life and asking, “What is my deepest truth? Where do I plant my flag and say, ‘Come hell or high water, I stake my heart and my life and my soul on this truth, right here, right now.’?

As we stand in the shadow of the Cross today, as we brave every nerve in our body to look on the bleeding face of our suffering Savior, that truth may come to us in different ways.

We may express it in different words.

Every year I watch as Holy Week develops within me, over the weeks of Lent and over the days and hours leading up to this service.

And this year, the truth that is larger than I am, the truth that sends a rod of steel up my backbone, the truth that will stay with me no matter who or what else deserts me, comes in familiar words:

“I know that my Redeemer liveth, and at the latter day he shall stand upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him who is my friend and not a stranger.”

These are of course the words of Job in chapter 19 of his book, but we are perhaps most familiar with them as the burial anthems, the words that are said at the opening procession into the church at a funeral.

Today is a day of chaos, and we need somewhere to anchor ourselves as the world spins out of control, as we see our God bleeding his life away in front of our very eyes.

Everything is deserting us, we are deserting him, and there is nothing to rely on.

Who will take care of us if Jesus is dead?

Who will hold back the forces of evil?

Who will shield us from the darkness and love us even though we make the same stupid mistakes over and over again?

These words from Job are a promise, but they are not a promise to save us from suffering.

They are not a shield or a protection from pain or fear or death.

They are a promise of what will come on the last day, what awaits us on the other side of our long struggle to be faithful and to be changed into a manifestation of God’s love in the world.

And they’re not just a promise to us or about us. They’re a promise about Jesus. Continue reading

Thursday Dinner, Eating With Sinners: The Second Coming

What we do on Maundy Thursday is attempt to reenact and experience everything Jesus taught us to do while we wait for him to come again.

We might even say that we do what he asked us to do to help him or invite him or make him come again.

I have a hunch that the Second Coming is not the apocalypse of fireworks and epic battles across the skies that we’ve been led to imagine by end times pop theology.

What if the Second Coming of Christ is actually us?

What if the Second Coming of Christ is we, the Body of Christ, growing more and more conformed to the Mind of Christ until we are able to fully manifest his will in the world? Continue reading

Wednesday: The Question We’re Afraid to Ask

One of the most difficult obstacles to experiencing Holy Week fully, to entering into with full emotional integrity and not turning off and tuning out, is the heavy sense of inevitability to it all.

We know that on the other side of these dark days lies the greatest joy in the world, but sticking it out while these terrible things happen, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, day after day of crisis and calamity, is rough.

That is emphasized tonight by the fact that our readings this evening are not actually going to take place until tomorrow. We are reading about Thursday night’s events on Wednesday night.

And we know they’re going to happen. We know there’s no escape.

John often portrays Jesus as impassive, cool and serene and dispensing wisdom from a sage emotional distance.

But here, at the turning point of his life and work on Earth, even John can’t quite believe that Jesus could experience his own betrayal to death with no visible reaction.

“At supper with his friends, Jesus was troubled in spirit,” John says.

Troubled in spirit. Can we speculate on what Jesus might have been feeling at that moment?

Fear, perhaps. He was about to endure an incredible amount of physical pain that would in the end kill him.

I don’t think his human self could anticipate that without fear.

Despair—he only has a few days left and his disciples are still clueless. Will they stubbornly continue to fail to understand what he’s been trying to teach them?

And pain. Jesus hurts to know that Judas, Judas whom he chose, whom he taught, whom he loved, will sell him out to be killed. Continue reading

Hunger to Honesty to Love

Today is Refreshment Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Lent. Since ancient times, Christians have recognized their frailty and realized they might not be able to maintain their strict Lenten disciplines all the way through the long, cold days of Lent waiting for Easter.

So rather than giving up halfway through and chucking the whole thing, they created Refreshment Sunday, a sort of pit-stop at the beginning of the last long climb toward Holy Week.

Today, you have the full sanction and blessing of the Church to take a day off from your Lenten discipline.

As is wont to happen with church traditions, Refreshment Sunday has had many auxiliary traditions grow up alongside it over the years.

Its original name was Laetare Sunday, from the Latin for “O be joyful.”

This was not an exhortation to the people to be joyful, the medieval Catholic Church was not that generous.

It was rather named for the introit used at the mass on the fourth Sunday of Lent, from Isaiah 66. It begins “O be joyful, Jerusalem, and come together all you that love her.”

All the monks and priests knew the introit and calling it Laetare Sunday was a sort of shorthand nickname for the fourth Sunday of Lent.

As time went on, “this same Sunday was known in England as Mothering Sunday. It was a day when servants and apprentices were allowed to take a day off and go home to visit their mothers. That tradition later became linked to parochial life as people made pilgrimage to the church of their youth, their “Mother Church.””

Not quite the same as Mother’s Day in the U.S., but probably part of its origins.

There is also a Refreshment Sunday in the other penitential season of the Church year, Advent. You may recognize it as the Sunday when some churches burn a pink candle in their Advent wreaths instead of a blue or purple one.

That comes from the other name for Refreshment Sunday which is Rose Sunday. It actually comes from medieval times when the Pope would send a golden rose to European monarchs as a reminder of to whom they owed their ultimate loyalty—although at times it was not clear whether that loyalty was supposed to be to God or to the Pope himself!

But Rose Sunday also came to be celebrated in a way I devoutly wish I had the liturgical budget to facilitate: with the priest wearing rose pink vestments.

In the old lectionary, the Gospel lesson for Refreshment Sunday was the story of the loaves and fishes. It’s very strange to realize that “there was a time when the lectionary known to most churches of the West did not include the Parable of the Prodigal Son at all, even though it is surely one of the best known of Jesus’ parables.”

It wasn’t until the Revised Common Lectionary was compiled in 1992 that the Prodigal Son had a slot to be proclaimed in church on Sunday mornings.

The Prodigal Son certainly finds himself in need of refreshment by the time he finds himself so hungry he’s eating food meant for pigs.

Refreshment is a very kind word for what is actually a very deep and visceral need.

And it’s a need that we all have within us.

There comes a time in our lives when we realize, like the younger son, that we are living badly.

Or rather, there should come a time in our lives that we realize that, but many of us don’t. Continue reading

Lord, Make Me a Pharisee

Imagine yourself as a major fan of the Indiana Hoosier basketball team.

For most of you, that will not be a stretch.

Now, go bigger. Imagine yourself as a ticket taker at Assembly Hall.

Now, go bigger. Imagine yourself as a graduate assistant in the equipment department.

Now, go bigger. Imagine yourself as an assistant coach to the Indiana Hoosier basketball team.

You are sitting on the bench next to Head Coach Tom Crean during every game. You are strategizing and encouraging and celebrating as Williams and Ferrell and Hartman dominate from the paint to the perimeter every night.

You are extremely invested in IU basketball.

Your life revolves around setting them up to go deep in the NCAA tournament.

This could be your year! You could go all the way to the National Championship!

Now imagine, in your role as Assistant Coach, it’s the eve of the Big Ten Tournament, and you and your fellow coaches draw up all the plays and plans and strategies for your run through the tournament.

This is the set-up for the end of your entire breakout season, the season that has recaptured the glory of famed Hoosier Basketball, the season that has awakened Kansas fans like me to the fact that the road to the Final Four once again runs through Bloomington.

There is very tight security around your preparation for the Big Ten Tournament. Players and coaches alike know how important it is to not spill any secrets to the media or even family and friends.

Preparation in a monster conference like the Big Ten requires a military-style discipline and cohesion.

Now here comes the crazy part.

You arrive in Indianapolis for the tournament. Most of the teams stay in a one of a few hotels near the arena.

You hear that the Head Coach of Purdue basketball, Matt Painter, is going to be at such-and-such restaurant for dinner the night before the opening game.

Matt Painter and Purdue represent potentially a major threat to the end of IU’s season this year, not to mention being IU’s most hated long-term rival.

And then you, the assistant coach of the Indiana Hoosiers basketball team, sit down at Matt Painter’s table and hand him IU’s entire tournament playbook.

He recognizes you and opens the book with disbelief as you start to take him through it, explaining to this enemy coach every single part of your team’s tournament strategy. Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, all of it.

You’ve just betrayed the organization that has commanded your every shred of loyalty probably for your whole life, and alerted that organization’s enemy to your exact plans to defeat it.

WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?! Continue reading

What To Do When You Can’t Forgive Someone Who’s Dead

Today I’d like to talk to you about death.

Why? Well, because it’s Ash Wednesday, and that’s always a good time to talk about death.

Also, because we don’t talk about death enough.

A clergy friend of mine says she always greets Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent with an enormous sense of relief, because we are finally free to talk about everything we don’t want to talk about, and the things we don’t want to talk about are usually the greatest burdens on our hearts.

I’d like to talk about how most of us misunderstand death in a fundamental way even though we’re Christians.

We treat death as final.

We treat death as a complete ending of our relationship with the person who has died, and that’s actually not at all true.

We find evidence of this right in our own catechism, and every time I quote this to people, they’re surprised.

“Why do we pray for the dead?” the question reads in the catechism (it’s on page 862 in your prayerbook if you’re interested).

And here’s the answer: “We pray for them, because we still hold them in our love, and because we trust that in God’s presence those who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until they see him as he is.”

What do you think about that? Continue reading

Not So Much With the Atonement

“If it were a snake, it would have bit me!”

This is an expression you use if you’ve been looking for something and can’t find it only to discover it’s been right in front of you the whole time.

I thought of this expression as I studied our scriptures for this week about serpents and poles and whatnot, but it did not come true. There is nothing obvious about our texts today.

We’re going to have to dig a little deeper for meaning.

In our Gospel today, Jesus is trying to explain to Nicodemus who he is. He says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” That’s John 3:15.

Of course, the verse that everyone quotes all the time and puts on signs at football games is John 3:16, for God so loved the world. But I think this verse right before it bears an equal amount of fruit for us to harvest.

Jesus is referring to the story we read today from the book of Numbers, when Moses and the Israelites were in the wilderness.

The Israelites are misbehaving and complaining to Moses again, and the Lord finally gets fed up and sets a bunch of poisonous snakes on them.

Moses prays to the Lord to have compassion on them, and the Lord tells Moses to take a snake and raise it up on a pole, and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.

The interesting part of this story is that while it does say directly that it is the Lord who set the serpents among the people, which is bizarre at best and just mean at worst, the Lord never says that the serpents are there to punish the Israelites for their sin.

The Israelites draw that conclusion themselves. Continue reading