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Ascension Sunday at Gray UMC

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This Sunday I’ll be preaching at Gray United Methodist Church in Gray, Tennessee.  GUMC has three services.  Heritage and Lifesong worship simultaneously at 9:30am, while the traditional is at 11:15am.  Heritage has an order of worship that is very traditional and most of the participants are of a more mature age range. 

This Sunday is also Ascension Sunday.  The lectionary prescribes Acts 1:6-11 which is Jesus’ departing words and ascension into heaven.  In this sermon, I address the meantime between Jesus’ ascension and return through the lens of aging.  Just as the physical Jesus leaves the disciples, our physical abilities leave us.  The actions of the disciples following Jesus’ departure give us insight into the aging process as we await to be made whole in heaven.

I have erroneously believed that aging happened at a given point in time. No one told me it kind of snuck up on us. I suppose this hard held belief was fostered by my father. While still in high school, I remember greeting him in the kitchen and his face had fallen. It seemed like yesterday, this rather young (yet seasoned) man I called “Dad” fussed at me for going to bed too late. The next morning, he was gone, replaced by an older version. Another morning, while home on a college break, he asked me to read the back of a food label. I asked, “Can’t you read that Dad?” He responded with, “I could yesterday. I just can’t focus.” The next day he was fitted for glasses. Now they rarely leave his face.

Approaching 40, my body reminds me that I am not 19. My body, medically, takes after my father’s side. I have scoliosis. I must be mindful of what I lift and how I move. I have therapy every other week. And just last year, I started allergy shots because my body does not bounce back as it once did with my yearly sinus battles. While I may be wiser, I do move slower and this body needs more care. This is my new reality.

I have had to accept that my original premise was false. Aging happens slowly and (shocker!) it is happening to me.

The disciples had an original premise about the resurrected Jesus. Some assumed that he would take over right then and there – after all he had defeated death, taking the Roman Empire a breeze! Jesus does just the opposite, he leaves town…for good.

Read Acts 1:6-11

The disciple’s ability to hear the voice of Jesus, touch Jesus, see Jesus move about is gone. They stand in shock, watching, hoping that they are not alone. But they are. And this is their new reality.

The two men in white represent a transition from wanting the physical presence of Jesus to the acceptance of reality without a flesh on bone leader. That expectation must be released.  All of life, every chapter, is characterized by letting go of something. Youths enjoy putting aside childish ways and trying on adulthood, until they arrive.  Still then, we struggle to find the true self God has created and called us to be. We must let go of facades that underserve us. We let go of our expectations we put on others and learn to enjoy them for who they are.  We learn to dismiss the cultural “norm” and risk to discover new possibilities.

The most difficult “letting go” task involves our physicality. Aging slowing takes away what we used to do and adds new routines that are a nuisance. The two men in white often usher us into transition. To the disciples they redirect from a physical expectation to a spiritual longing. Yes, one day Jesus will return, but in this present moment, what does it mean?

To those of us who hurt and ache, the transition is to accept our broken bodies, care for our broken bodies, and love our aging bodies with a mind’s eye toward the spiritual. Yes, we will be restored, but in this present moment, what does it mean?

What spiritual lessons are taught by being vulnerable, dependent and attentive this physical life?

  • I work harder, not smarter. Aging has taught me that I can adapt.
  • I have learned to laugh as things change. (Aging can be funny and I can be funny!)
  • Aging has taught me to love myself, take time to be healthy. (I’m God’s child and worth the effort!)

Jesus has not returned to the world stage in physical form yet and our world is still broken. What does it mean? Acts 1:13-14 tells us what it meant in that immediate moment for the disciples.

They learned they could support each other (Acts 1:12-13). They learned they could pray (Acts 1:14).  And they did these things with more faith and love than ever before.

It’s not the destination but the journey that shapes the soul.  Allow your brokenness to shape you.

Palm Sunday Worship

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Palm Sunday is a rare occasion for the preaching life of the lectionary preacher for this reason:  no sermon is recommended.  What is recommended are three worship movements; Liturgy of the Palms, Procession of the Palms and Holy Communion.  What’s a preacher to do?

Here is one bold suggestion.  Shut up and sit down.  A more polite invitation would say, “Please refrain from the 20-25 minute sermon.”  Tradition teaches us well.  Here are reasons why and a few tips on how.

Holy week follows Palm Sunday and Holy week, for the preaching life, can be a marathon.  Consider Palm Sunday your carb uptake and nap before the big race to the finish line. (The finish line being Easter lunch.)  A view from the pew would suggest that the unfolding story of Holy Week is so heavy with it’s emotional highs and lows the congregation needs a time of calm and reflection.  Palm Sunday can be a time of preparation for sadness of the sacrifice and the joy of the resurrection.  Make is simple, weave in times of silent reflection, and make the most of the two prescribed rubrics (Procession and Communion).

LITURGY OF THE PSALMS Due to the Biblical illiteracy of many churches mixed with the importance of these upcoming holy-days, I recommend using the welcoming time as an educational moment.  The congregation needs an explanation of why worship will be out of the ordinary today.  Once again, siting Biblical illiteracy as my reasoning, I suggest using a time early on in the worship service to expand upon common words of the season like “Hosanna” or “Palm”.  As the preacher educates, she weaves in the political background of the upcoming New Testament metanarrative and/or interpersonal relationships highlighted in the last week of the life of Jesus and/or the theological implications of what is happening. 

All the preacher is doing is setting the stage.  Allow the narrative to stand on it’s own.  Don’t preach by making life applications to modern day politics or human relations.  This Palm Sunday allow the liturgy to do the work for you.  Choose prayers, blessings, benedictions and communion liturgy that challenge the congregation to do the spiritual work of making connections from Palm Sunday to their own lives.  An excellent example is a prayer that would compliment a preacher’s explanation of Palm Sunday through the lens of the political powers of Jesus’ day (a socio-political view).  This prayer is entitled “Be Careful Jesus”.    It is powerful and thought provoking.

After all, liturgy means “work of the people”.

This Sunday my liturgy of Psalms would look something like this.  The Call to worship would be the Psalm of the day, then an 5-8 minute explanation of what is about to happen by expounding of what the word “Hosanna.  What did it mean to those who said it verses those who heard it.  In this short educational moment, I highlight the misconceptions about Jesus in the crowd that day:  The Jewish people the Roman government.  I incorporate historical points like the past uprisings the Romans have experience with the Jewish people of this region.  I use Old Testament scripture that highlights the meaning of Messiah heard by the Jewish people during worship.  I begin and end with the meaning of “Hosanna”.   This section of worship would close with the scripture reading for the day:  Matthew 21:1-11.  This leads nicely into The Procession of the Palms (so would Psalm 118 as a responsive reading!).

THE PROCESSION OF PALMS  The next portion of worship would be the Palm Processional itself.  Due to the makeup of the congregation, some have children sing and bring in the palms.  But if your congregation is older, perhaps inviting them to sing while bringing forth the palm they were given to the altar would make more sense.  If a choir is available, after the palms are placed is a great time for their worship contribution.  This time of joy would be followed by the prayer entitle “Be Careful Jesus” and a silent reflection.

Whenever allowing the liturgy to make challenge the congregation, do your best to give them times of silence to soak it in.  Glossing over the work done by congregants will only negate the preacher’s efforts.

HOLY COMMUNION  Finally choose sections of the communion liturgy to incorporate life applications of the day’s worship events in conjunction with the theme offered in the opening welcome and explanation.  A great example of a prayer of confessions is also on the same page as “Be Careful Jesus”.  Keep it simple and reflective.

Just a few thoughts on Palm Sunday……

 

Pope Francis and the three legged Elephant

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A leader who inherits an institution will always have this elephant in the room: REFORM-ME-NOT. Pope Francis, as well as the bishops of the United Methodist Church, will always have this elephant in the room. And the elephant stands on three legs: outdated ideas, outdated methods and just plain ole human nature (pride).

When a leader possesses internal self-leadership, connects with the people he/she is to lead and functions from a world/future view shaped by the life, death and resurrection of Christ, the elephant in the room shrinks because creative strategies emerge…as if sent from heaven!

Currently, Pope Francis is taking on the elephant in the room: the Vatican bank.

The Vatican Bank: A BIG three legged elephant

In 2012 Vatican letters were leaked to the press by the Pope’s personal butler (then Pope Benedict). The public discovered corrupt purchasing practices. Archbishop Carol Maria Vigano confirmed the pubic charge by denouncing the signing of inflated contracts with chosen companies. The Archbishop shaved down one contract that purchased a Christmas Nativity scene for St. Peter’s Square. The discount totaled $ 340, 000.

But that amount was too little, too late. The present Pope was silent and the resulting vacuum left the Catholic Church’s credibility limping in the public/world’s eyes.

Heaven Sent Strategies

Publically, Pope Francis is not showing his cards…at least not verbally. Understanding that actions speak louder than words, he has chosen new leadership for the Vatican Bank. His man in charge is Australian Cardinal George Pell. Pell has long been a critic of accounting transparency.

Pope Francis speaks, again by action, in revealing how he will oversee Cardinal Pell. Pell will work with a 15-member leadership group, made up of 8 world geographical territories (I am assuming they are clergy) and 7 LAY EXPERTS from various economic backgrounds. The Vatican made a statement to the world charging this group with this task: “{to create} a more formal commitment to adopting accounting standards and generally accepted financial management and reporting practices, as well as enhanced internal controls, transparency and governance.” This reflects the largest overhaul since Pope John Paul.

These changes are to be expected. Why? This Pope refuses red shoes and a papal palace! It only makes sense that he would reform finances to serve the poor. My argument is this: Reform of the Vatican Bank does not come from a leadership book that Pope Francis read in seminary (or a much needed popularity uptick on the world stage). The much needed reform of the Vatican Bank comes from the inner conviction of Pope Francis. He believes that in order for the church to be Christ’s bride on earth, she much serve the poor, work with the poor and be among the poor. Pope Francis knows who is he, what he believes and why God gave him the Papacy. Reform is necessary to do this – serve the poor!

The Three Legged Elephant for the United Methodist Church

The elephant in the room for the UMC can best be summed up by the outstanding article written by Robert Schnase in this past issue of The Circuit Rider. Bishop Schanse names the outdated systematic way of doing ministry by drawing a triangle. This triangle chases the money flow in an example of a church wanting to build a parsonage for missionaries in Africa.  The money begins with the congregation, and then travels up the triangle through four more committees. Sitting at the top of the triangle is the General Board of Global Missions. From the top of the triangle, the money now must roll down through four additional committees, then reaching the congregation in Africa. Months later and money removed to pay for administrative costs along the journey, the parsonage is built.

This does not square in our postmodern culture. First and foremost, the upcoming generations of leaders want to be hands-on in missions and have a deep desire for immediate results. Secondly, we are blessed by technology. Our young leaders can be hand-on and immediate by just using the cell phone in their back pocket.

Bishop Schnase flattens the triangle showing how direct, personal and immediate communication (made possible by Skype, Facebook and Smartphones!) meets the needs, not only of the African congregation but also the American congregation without waiting months or paying for administrative costs.

Red Tape, or more directly, outdated methods are the toe to the foot that the elephant in the room dances on when UMC leadership meet. This is not news.

Currently, congregations are doing exactly what Bishop Schnase has outlined. They are abandoning the 1950 United Methodist method of red tape triangulation and using technology to get things done. Most churches quietly pay their apportionments to keep their pastor in good standing. (Apportionments keep the red tape triangle up and running.) However the tipping point is coming. Churches will begin to catch on and the red tape triangle will first be challenged, and then defunded by the churches.

What Pope Francis Teaches the United Methodist Church

In the stride of Pope Francis, what if UMC leadership decided to get ahead of the curve? The challenge is to lead the UMC into an era that is friendly (even accommodating and empowering) to churches doing ministry with immediate results that are fueled by technology. This type of change can only come from the top down.

Top down leadership must politely defund, shrink and collapse the unnecessary red tape triangles. (dramatic pause.) However, if balanced with ways to make direct ministry more doable for churches (as if linking arms and partnering with lay people), the change will be welcomed.

Just as Pope Francis has given power to a cardinal who is well educated about the Vatican Bank and up front about the changes to be made, surely we could empower one or more such visionaries. Also, Pope Francis is ever mindful of the problems with career clergymen of his institution. Often they cannot see beyond the confines of the clergy box. Pope Francis makes use of lay people with pertaining skill sets and differing world views and experiences.  This links clergy and lay together, lessening class-ism and values the unique lay perspective.

I would like to see a General Conference with a step by step plan to lessen the red tape, makes use of valuable lay people and creates a plan to empower churches to make use of the tools out there to do ministry at home and around the world directly and immediately. Just the boost of energy from this overhaul would give the UMC the shot in the arm needed for  further reform.  The plan comes with marks along the road for success.

For example:

  1. Dollars and cents – educate the lay people of how much money will be saved and how it will be funneled back to them (or just left in THEIR offering plates)
  2. Challenge churches on how to use this money. (Put new carpet in our rarely used “parlor” or fund a Habitat house?)
  3. Provide meaningful training on ministry in the technical age we find ourselves (Help especially smaller churches to not be overwhelmed.)
  4. (as red tape shrinks and committees, boards and agencies cease) Communicate what the committee/board/agency did and how that ministry can be done on the local level (Churches, it’s up to you to change the world!)
  5. Highlight churches that are using the funds for ministry, outreach, mission (Make PR about the people, not the institution)

The end game is to empower lay people and the churches they represent to be the hands and feet of Christ in this postmodern, technological world. The good press wouldn’t hurt either.

Leadership Lesson #3 Major decisions that affect the institution begin with the convictions of the leader.

 

Pope Francis lesson #2 Leadership is not a technical skill

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This is a sad, sad story.  Once upon a time, when I was a pastor in a United Methodist Church (which is part of a regional district) far, far away, I was summonsed to make myself present at a district event. (This means that other pastors in that geographical location would make up the audience.)  It was mandatory.  Being a good foot solider, I cleared my day to make room for this well plugged happening.  Due to the gravity of the event, it would have been considered rude to read a book during the proceedings.  Therefore, I set about the business of people watching.  This is what I saw.

Seated up front and middle isle was the head pastor of the largest church in our district.  He had reached the upper echelon of our gathering by maintaining a reputation of administrative talents.  He dutifully sat with his eyes fixed on the speaker, arms crossed and head slightly cocked to the side.  Sitting in the pew behind and diagonal to this head pastor was another young pastor, fresh from seminary.  I noticed that the young pastor mimicked every body movement of the older, head pastor.  He shook his head when the older guy did, crossed his arms and turned his head the same way.  When it came time for questions and feedback, the young pastor asked follow up questions or comments only on the coat tails of this head pastor’s questions or comments.  Poser?  Possibly.

If leadership is defined by being schooled in the latest leadership models, attending workshops on the gritty “how-to” or owning an extensive electronic library of leadership books, this guy is not a poser.  He is working hard to get somewhere.  And he is following the path of those who have gone before and making alliances with those elders. However the question does loom:  why?

Only 36% of employees believe their leaders act with honesty and integrity. – FrankinCovey

When posing “why?” to the picture I just painted, an uneasy feeling comes over you, doesn’t it?  Author Chris Lowney claims that we are all victims of the “leadership industry” in which workshops and books are seen as the pillars of good leadership (Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads).  If so then why do we distrust our leadership?

2.  The example Pope Francis sets teaches us that leadership is not a technical skill.  It is a soul skill that embodies trust.

Leadership begins with self-knowledge, self-acceptance and self-love.  For Christians these spiritual modes are amplified by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  When a leader trusts in themselves (their emotions, decisions, actions, intentions) as well as having a great deal of trust in God, they are prepared to be present among the people, radiating their spiritual experiences.  Also, the leader who is well invested in the emotional journey of their spirit is able to give him/herself to the people by being truly present.  This means we preach, teach, lead, service and listen with depth and authentic concern.  The essential elements of making decisions on behalf of other people are self- trust, God-trust and followers that trust and share with their leader.   Some call this pastoral leadership.

Pope Francis has demonstrated that he has this kind of trust in God. He didn’t seek his office! “Obviously he’s not a self-promoter,” Mr. Lowney said of the first South American and first Jesuit priest to become pope. “He didn’t fish around to have his name known in clerical circles. He went back to Buenos Aires and worked with poor people.” (Chris Lowney in an interview for the Pittsburg Post-Gazette)  Pope Francis trusted his inner emotions and desires.  He returned home to be who he was/is – God’s co-worker.

What does Pope Francis teach the United Methodist Church?

Reanalyze how we mentor leaders.

I propose the mentoring process not focus solely on the mentee’s ability to uphold “the system”.  Rather the goal of the relationship is to be one of safety and trust.  Spiritual conversations about emotions, relationships and theology are to be capitalized and central.  Mentors are required to report on “progress”.  I suggest they be selective so that the mentee can feel that confidentiality is honored.  Furthermore, I suggest that the reporting process be verbal with mentor and mentee in a room with third person.  The third person fills out the paperwork.  This gives the mentor accountability and an opportunity to build trust.  The mentee can decide from the outcome whether or not to continue in the process with his/her mentor.

If we want leaders like Pope Francis, we must create a safe place for them to fail.  If they feel safe, they will learn about themselves, as well as the situation.  If they do not feel safe, we are just teaching them how to “cover their tracks”.

Add a self-care component to all District and Conference continuing education events.

Conference and district events are laden with leadership model teachings.  I suggest we dial that back…dramatically.  Let our gatherings reflect a #1 priority – soul care for the leader.  This application is made to clergy and lay.  Conversations about emotions, intentions, and self-care create an environment that welcomes leaders to set aside their worries and focus on themselves.  The interactions that will be produced will unify those in leadership as sharing a common spiritual journey.  If done well, I predict that Pope Francis-like leaders will emerge.  And those that are burnt out or do not have the skill set for pastoral/lay leadership will step aside on their own accord without hurt feelings. Instead, they feel cared for and valued by their colleagues. 

If we want Pope Francis-like leaders, we must create a culture that honors the basis of his leadership style – soul care.  Continuing Education is not about the head, it’s about the heart.

Give power to only those who practice these spiritual understandings.                           

Seek out those who do not run for office. Mentor them in the way of self-care.  Build a relationship of trust.  Empower them to affect others, radiating God’s love (not fill a job description).

Why I want a copy of the papal conclave’s playbook

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Pope Francis offers the world something that is in short supply these days:  unity.  This past week, the Pontiff completed his first year of leading the oldest Christian community, the Catholic Church.  And I have noticed that no matter the company of conversation I choose to keep (conservative or liberal), the person across the table speaks fondly of Pope Francis.  This is a rarity.  I am part of a Christian denomination deeply divided and poorly organized.  Most of my conversations about the church, politics or religion in general are problem solving oriented (So many problems!).  Yet when it comes to Pope Francis, the conversational tone is more observant. 

So I have observed this new Pope.  Here are the lessons I think he teaches us in his first year:

1.      A component to spiritual maturity is being comfortable in your own skin.

Sitting across the table, cradling a hot tea, was a best liberal friend.  She shared with me how touched she was that Pope Francis had placed his head in the lap of a homeless man.  Then she followed up the praise with a wish.  She hoped that Pope Francis was indeed everything that these images relayed.  Her shoulders sunk as she reflected.

I understand the concern.  With Photoshop, the insatiable thirst for celebrity gossip and the Internet in general, we have been made weary.  Not all seen, read or heard can be truly trusted.  But my friend, whose theology has been shaped by personal tragedy and theological education, had a deeper concern.  She hoped that Pope Francis was not faking self-leadership (an internal process).  I am convinced he is the real deal.

St. Ignatius 1491-1556

Pope Francis exhibits a deep knowledge and acceptance of himself that allows him to offer authenticity beyond any other leader currently on the national stage.  I believe this is possible because Pope Francis first leads himself, meaning his emotions, his thoughts and his actions.  He is comfortable with world leaders as well as homeless men and curious children because (I believe) he sees a part of himself in each.  This type of self-leadership comes from the communal and personal philosophy of St. Ignatius, who founded the Jesuits.

“The heart has its reasons of which the mind knows nothing.” – Ignatius Loyola

Pope Francis is a Jesuit.  This stream of thought and practice in the Catholic Church follows the example of St. Ignatius.  The major tenant of spiritual renewal for the Jesuit focuses on the heart, over intellect.  It assumes that we do not always understand our actions and reflection upon them in the light of our accompanying emotions reveal great internal knowledge.  This knowledge gives us insight into God’s hand in our internal world as well as the external world. The other component to this spirituality is faith in action. St. Ignatius left his followers with writings on imaginative prayer, spiritual reflection, self-scrutiny and generous service to others.  Pope Francis exemplifies these teachings in a very public way.

The new Pontiff refuses “special treatment” like red slippers or a papal palace.  I can assume he is a nightmare to those in charge of his safety.  This Pope finds himself in and among the people by eye to eye contact, physical touching and serving in person and on spot.  Is this all an act?

The evidence suggest no.  Pope Francis is who he has always been:  a priest with a track record of humility and servant focused, hands-on work among the people he was sent to serve.  Knowing what I know about the spiritual life and the Jesuit way, I believe Pope Francis’ Jesuit spirituality has made him aware of his shortcomings and taught him how to allow Christ to love him anyway.  That is the key principle behind his hunger to be among “the people”.  He wants to convey this life changing love.

Pope Francis gifts us with a component of spiritual maturity that is essential for religious leadership today.  We are hungry for authentic leaders who first embrace themselves and allow Christ to love them.  They openly claim shortcomings and approach success with humility.  These leaders operate from their spiritual journey of healing, rather than a need to prove something.

 Pope Francis teaches the United Methodist Church

 First things first, my hat goes off not to Pope Francis.  I am impressed with the papal conclave (the gathering of cardinal who chose Pope Francis).  Can we get a copy of their play book, please?  This papal conclave’s actions speak directly to those who choose leaders for our churches.  Here is the take-away:

  1. a.     For those serving in our churches at whatever capacity, seek out spiritual maturity in your own life.  Consider a study on the Jesuit way.
  2. b.     For those serving in our pulpits, (follow step a then) preach, teach and lead people into spiritual maturity, choosing those on this path to be church leaders.  Order worship so that times of reflection are employed, use language of forgiveness, not judgment, speak in terms of process not behavior modification models, teach with times of conversation about emotions…refocus on the internal life.
  3. c.    For district superintendents and bishops, (follow step a, and step b then) reorganize everything in your sphere of influence to reflect this pursuit.  Begin meetings with spiritual reflection readings and silent reflection times, invite clergy to round table discussion on emotions and the internal spiritual life, and work at being comfortable with listening to clergy struggles.
  4. d.     For those who are chosen to elect leadership for our church at the Jurisdictional conference level, (follow step a then) sift through bishop candidates by determining who is authentic and who is running for the office with less than authentic intentions.  Push for talk back session with the candidates and ask questions about internal self-leadership.  Study the CV each candidate presents. 

One last thought:  Chris Lowney wrote a book on Pope Francis called Pope Francis:  Why He Leads the Way He Leads.  From Chapter 5, we find this quote:  “Be comfortable in your own skin.  Know who you are, the good and the bad.  And find the courage not just to be yourself, but to be the best version of yourself.  These are the foundations of self-leadership, and all leadership starts with self-leadership because you can’t lead the rest of us if you can’t lead yourself.”

Look forward to the next post about more lesson from this Pope….

Henri Nouwen on the temptation of Christ

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Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.  The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.  “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.  “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

Matthew 4:1-11

Click Here for a great article on bread by Henri Nouwen

Theologian Henri Nouwen summarized the temptation of Christ in three distinct categories:  relevance, popularity and power.  The human need for bread was relevant and pragmatic.  Jesus had been fasting.  The allure of throwing oneself off the temple is tempting because Jesus’ personhood (Son of God) would no longer be questioned.  This feat would allow him to move about his purposes unhindered.  The third temptation would give Jesus power, a world fashioned to Jesus’ liking.

The frightening similarity of each temptation is that Jesus could use each of the devil’s deals to complete his mission:  Bread, for the physical journey, popularity to get everyone on the same page and power to shape things as he would like.  So aside from the devil’s authorship, what is so bad about these temptations?

Henri Nouwen would say that these temptation appeal to the illusion of “having it all”.   My good friend, Dr. Joe Perez lends these words to our conversation:  Even when we achieve these personal desires (relevance, popularity and power), it is always fleeting, never permanent, and not totally whole. Thus, it can create an addiction to chase these experiences.  As with all addictions, one is left unfulfilled and wanting more.   These desires will always be with us.  It is the nature of being human.  However, the Christian spiritual life is one that speaks kindly to these voices that demand we give in and offers a gentle management of constant temptations for those who seek a new perspective.

Henri Nouwen recommends maintaining a spiritual tool box filled with alternative ways of thinking about our lives and experiencing our emotions.  He offers to us a life of contemplative prayer, confession, forgiveness, and theological reflection.   A closer analysis of Jesus’ responses reveals that his tool box must have included these spiritual devices.  They are delivered cloaked in the authority of scripture.

Currently, we are in the Christian season of Lent and these practices are common observances of this holiday.  Jesus leads the way through Lent by pointing out dangers along our spiritual walk.  He also guides us toward more holistic living by prescribing an alternative way.

For those who live the preaching life……

I recommend to those who live the preaching life to approach Lent by living and preaching in the gray.  Often we approach scriptures with a black and white mentality.  We warn of the black, we point to the white.  While some of those sermons are helpful, most of them only teach behavior modification.  I would encourage an alternative, gray route.  Allow Lent to be a time of teaching the congregation to form questions about themselves and about God.  (And not for the purpose of the Almighty Pastor to deliver and eloquent answer!)  Rather develop your sermon as a safe place to invite uncomfortable questions to hang.

Taking Matthew 4, for example, the temptations are always with us.  We are human.  Instead of warning about the downfalls, invite the congregation to ask “why?”.  Why is this desire with me?  Why does it materialize in this fashion?  Why did God give me this desire?  The sermon becomes a time to explore these questions that dare not be uttered (for fear they may be wrong/black).  The pulpit brings a question and then encourages the congregation to think about it alongside the pastor.  No definite answers are offered.  Instead, the congregation leaves with things to contemplate throughout the week.  My experience is that many pastoral issues that require a sounding board seek the pastor out!  What an honor!

Let’s take a more detailed example.  Take a look at the first temptation of Jesus (You may  like to click on the picture to find the article by Nouwen that I’m going to use).  My sermon would humanize the desire to be practical and relevant.  Just setting this norm tones down the anxiety in the room.  I can see their thoughts “Whoa.  This is good.  She is not talking about just me.”  Humanizing sin and emotions is a great way to build trust between the pulpit and the pew.

What I mean by humanize is that every human in the Sunday assembly owns this struggle.  We are all together (even the human Jesus).

The next movement would incorporation Deuteronomy 8:3, allowing scripture to interpret scripture.  This would bring us to Nouwen’s point:  Bread is given to us by God so that we will entrust ourselves completely to  God’s word.  So now the question:  If God gave bread so we will entrust ourselves to God’s word, is there a purpose for this need to constantly be practical and relevant?  The rest of the sermon explores this question.  I would make the point that relevance is a by product, not a goal.  The goal is staying in love with God.  This is the thought process of Henri Nouwen.  And his thoughts allow the congregation to embrace the voice of the temptation, recognizing the good in it.  This voice that demands relevance, efficiency and practicality is not black or white, it is gray and gray is where we live.

Just as Jesus “did not deny the importance of bread but rather relativized it in  comparison with the nurturing power of the Word of God (Nouwen)” we do the same with this internal voice by humanizing it and being comfortable with the gray.

Another excellent sermon strategy was inspired by this Nouwen quote:  The radical challenge is to let God and the divine Word shape and reshape us as  human beings, to feast each day on this Word and thus grow into free and  fearless people. Thus we can continue to witness to God’s presence in this  world, even when there are few or no visible results. A good litmus test of this attitude would be to invite the congregation to reflect on a time when they felt useless (at the bedside of a dying person, perhaps.)  How comfortable were they when feeling useless?  Explore those feeling with the congregation and juxtapose them the words of Jesus and Nouwen’s thoughts.  Once again, we humanize feelings and experiences and invite the Divine scriptures to weigh in.

Just a few thoughts for the preaching life….

 

The Uncomfortable Ash Wednesday

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Ash Wednesday is March the 5th this year.  Churches that observe this religious day will invite participants to receive a mixture of oil and ashes upon their foreheads in the form of a cross.  The ancient rite instructs the worship leader to recite Genesis 3:19 as the ashes are applied.  “For dust you are and to dust you shall return”.  These are the words of God, spoken to Adam and Eve after they partook of the forbidden fruit, causing sin and death to come upon our world.

 Why would Christianity assign a day to contemplate death?  Are not Christians supposedly happy with their personal relationship with Jesus?  There are positive benefits to the spiritual life however reaping some of those rewards require us to be uncomfortable. 
The Order of Worship for Ash Wednesday is uncomfortable.  First of all, there is no preaching.  Secondly, many opportunities are given for the contemplation of scripture verses by way of silent prayer.  The scriptures chosen are not “happy”.  Sorrow, death, and acts of lamentation and repentance in response to sin are just a few topics worshippers are invited to internalize while silence fills the sanctuary.  I liken the experience to attending my first funeral as a child.  I remember slowly approaching the casket.  The room faded away.  All the sights and sounds were gone and there I stood; me and a corpse.  Was I too going to end this way?  I was ten years old and in perfect health.  Just the other day, I amazed my 5th grade class by balancing a tater tot on my chin only to project the fried potato bit upwardly, landing it perfectly in my mouth.  I did all of this while standing on one foot!  How could a casket be in my future?  Why could life not be an eternal continuing of tater tot feats?
My grandmother brought me back to the room.  Her wrinkled hand took my arm, leading me to our assigned pew.  I noted every wrinkle and arthritic knot in that hand, realizing that she would probably die before me.  I felt comfort knowing that she and I had a similar destination.  Knowing I was not alone brought peace as the shattering thought of growing up,  growing old and dying sank into my adolescent mind.  I relive this moment every Ash Wednesday service and add a deeper insight each year.
The awareness of the death’s certainty has great value in the spiritual life.  It teaches us to embrace each chapter of the life we have been given, gleaming lessons and giving thanks.  It bonds us together as sojourners of a common journey, breeding compassion for our fellow humans.  Christians think about how the life, death, suffering and resurrection of Jesus Christ weighs in the scales of their personal and communal lives.  In summary, death gives us questions about life, that otherwise would be futile. 
Tim McGraw’s song “Live Like You Were Dy’in” tells the story of a man diagnosed with cancer.  The chorus gives his reaction to the medical news:
I went sky divin’,
I went rocky mountain climbin’,
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull name Fumanchu.
And I loved deeper, And I spoke sweeter,
And I gave forgiveness I’ve been denying,
And he said someday I hope you get the chance, To live like you were dyin’.
There is great value in the contemplation of death.  It gives us the starting place to begin each day with the end in mind.  Ancient Christians found this so valuable that they programmed Ash Wednesday into the yearly worship cycle.  I hope we can make room for these uncomfortable thoughts that prepare us to “live like we were dy’in”.

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