Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Way of True Repentance

Ash Wednesday service February 25, 2009. Sermon "The Way of True Repentance" based on Psalm 51:1-17.

Ashes to Ashes

I am sure that every preacher/pastor with a blog is blogging about Ash Wednesday. Either what they are doing for services or their own musings and ramblings. I guess it is no different with me. The significance or importance of this day is something we feel we must speak to, primarily because there is so much unknown of the subject matter. I will not go into the history or meaning behind Ash Wednesday, but here is a link to the Wikipedia entry for Ash Wednesday.

As I muse and ramble through this blog, I am struck at the perceived self-sufficiency of humans. Of course, that does not include infant humans or child humans, because they are dependent upon older humans to care for them. But from the moment of our birth, we begin our trek from total dependence to independence. First, we cry to communicate our needs, then we develop the motor skills necessary to provide ourselves with those things we want or desire (blankies, toes, etc.), then by learning to speak our wants and wishes. Then we walk, and that is when the real trouble starts. Anyone who has had a toddler knows that it is a workout to make sure your little bundle of joy does not get him/herself into trouble. By the time they are teens and think their brains are fully formed, they believe themselves capable of complete and total independence (except in the areas of finances, food, shelter, clothing, etc.). They are struggling with the older humans for control of their own destiny, and the older humans do not want to let go of the control they have in the life of that teen.

So it is with God. From the moment of our dependence, we struggle for independence. We pray our prayers and give our lives to God, the church rejoices at a new member, and the angels in heaven are singing. But in reality we retain control in such a way that makes it difficult for God to give us guidance or direction. We desire to live fully in the presence of Christ, but figure that Christ isn't in the workplace where we are not getting that promotion we believe we deserve, or in the halls of school, or in the marketplace - we believe Christ isn't present in the real world, which is the world in which we must maintain some control. Of course, we can listen to the teachings of Christ in the real world and live by a moral code. But when push comes to shove in that real world, the moral code breaks down.

We struggle with our independence and our belief that Christ isn't really present with us, only metaphorically present with us, in spirit. We believe that "God helps those who help themselves," a fallacy born of our struggle for our wants, our ways, our lives, our self-sufficiency. After all, we may not want Christ to be present with us when we are doing certain things. (See my sermon "God Knows Us and Still Loves Us.")

That brings us to the time in the life of Christ, the life of the church, and the life of Christians where we stop (finally) and allow our hearts and minds to search for the area in our life in which we most need reflection and repentance. We realize that we aren't as 'all that' as we might want to believe, and we purpose and are intentional about what we can do to walk closer with Christ.

Because Lent is a time of sorrow and mourning (thus the ashes), people tend to have a negative view and do not necessarily look with joy to Ash Wednesday. I, however, feel it is like New Year's. Yes, we might feel convicted and have to repent for our desire for self-sufficiency, or our addictions (alcohol, drug, food, materialistic, sexual, pornography, etc.), or simply our rejection of Christ in our everyday lives, but this conviction, while we may mourn our distance from Christ, brings about our reconciliation to the Giver of Life and life abundant.

I have learned through life that it is easier to face issues than to spend time, effort, and energy in attempting to avoid the unavoidable. It is easier to recognize that you have messed up and make things right, than to try to cover up our messes or worse, justify them. You would think that this habit of refusing to take responsibility for our actions would quit after toddlerhood, childhood, or at least by our teen years. But it doesn't. We simply matriculate into adulthood in which we have the mythical control of our lives and the ability to rationalize and justify our actions in such a way that makes sense to us.

It is easier to talk to children about relying on God than an adult, because children already rely on others. Children have no problem hearing correction as a learning experience, because they learn everyday. So what if they didn't know their times tables in second grade, they will learn them in third grade. Learning how to walk with God as a learning experience is nothing new for them. Relying on God is an extension of their understanding that they will be taken care of and are loved. I wish their parents and grandparents could understand that they too are beloved children of God and will be cared for, and the correction and guidance from God isn't hate-filled, wrath-filled or judgmental. It is like a parent who loves their child, who simply want what is best for that child and to be in relationship with that child. These parents and grandparents could do so much to teach their children and grandchildren about walking with God, if they weren't struggling with the concept so much themselves. No wonder Jesus said we must become as little children.

Job answered God: "I'm convinced: You can do anything and everything.
Nothing and no one can upset your plans.
You asked, 'Who is this muddying the water,
ignorantly confusing the issue, second-guessing my purposes?'
I admit it. I was the one. I babbled on about things far beyond me,
made small talk about wonders way over my head.
You told me, 'Listen, and let me do the talking.
Let me ask the questions. You give the answers.'
I admit I once lived by rumors of you;
now I have it all firsthand—from my own eyes and ears!
I'm sorry—forgive me. I'll never do that again, I promise!
I'll never again live on crusts of hearsay, crumbs of rumor."
Job 42:1-6 (The Message)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Book Review(ish): The Shack

I have recently finished reading "The Shack" by Wm. Paul Young (or William P. Young). For a while now, I have had others tell me that I should read it, so I put it on my mental "when I get around to it" list. A friend who never reads told me that she read the book and I needed to read it. I am not certain exactly what prompted me to move it to my, "need/want to do now" list, but it just seemed to happen and I am glad it did.

I would like to start off by saying, I tend to take most books that people tell me that I "must" read with a grain of salt (I only got half-way through 90 Minutes in Heaven - maybe the best stuff was at the end...hmmm) which is why I mentally put them on a "to-do later list" that I never intend to get around to. As a pastor, I have more people who want me to do critiques or book reviews of this book or that book or movie or whatever the latest Christian novelty happens to be. I tend to feel I have better things to do than read books that I do not feel will be particularly helpful to me or my ministry. I realize that this sounds quite snotty and arrogant, but there is so much to do, I must set boundaries and limits somewhere.

In any event, I ordered the book. I thought I would save it for this summer as I am going to be on an airplane for a seriously long time! But, I was intrigued by the first few pages and I couldn't quit reading. I thought Mr. Young did a fabulous job of addressing, in a respectful way, the age-old quandary: If God is a good god why do bad things happen, and if God cannot stop the bad things from happening, then God is impotent. It really isn't as simple as this, but it feels that way when you are facing tragedy in blacks and whites, generally first hand. I know a father of a sixteen year old who was killed in a car accident a couple of years ago. He has the same anger issues and questions as Mack (the main character of the book). I hope he can read this book; it may help, it may not, but it may free him up to question anyway.

I read a review on a blog by 'Brother Maynard' (a pseudonym) called Subversive Influence. It is "Spoiler-Free" so if you have not read the book it is safe to read. I think Brother Maynard did a good job of giving the details and his insight is helpful.

I think some of the theology in the book is pretty deep for the average reader. Not that it is incomprehensible, I think Mr. Young did a pretty decent job of dealing with deep theological issues in a way that most people can at least understand the words, which is the first step. I think there are ideas in there that, while I do not disagree with them, think that they could possibly be misconstrued or misused. I don't know if this book would be especially helpful for a non-Christian, although it might, but I definitely think that every Christian should read it if for no other reason than it would do them good to wrestle with the ideas, theological concepts, and spiritual pain that most of us tend to ignore or otherwise downplay.

I will probably go back and re-read this book, now that I know the end, so I can savor some of the deeper parts that I tend to plow through because I want to know more about the end. A failing of mine. I have read most of the books I like at least twice for this very reason. When I was a kid, I read the last two chapters first. I know, I know... Anyway, this book is worth the second read and I will probably take the time to underline and highlight a few passages that may help me explain some of these concepts should they arise in my ministry. And for this Sunday's sermon, I have a whole new understanding of the transfiguration moment.

It does touch on some seriously disturbing events (the abduction and murder of a child) that many, me included, may wish to avoid. Let me say, from one who hates gore to another, there is no gore. I think the minimal details to maintain the storyline were given. You feel the tragedy of the circumstances, but are not horrified. Do not let this stop you from reading the book. The main storyline is not solely about that, although that tragedy gives you insight to the main character who is the child's father.

I hope you read it. I hope it makes you stop and think. I hope you enjoy wrestling with the ideas and questions it poses as much as I do.

Sunday, February 1, 2009