Monthly Archives: February 2012
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin (Hebrews 4:15).
Today is Ash Wednesday.
Lent has begun.
We follow Jesus into the wilderness, where we too will be tempted. But we follow one who has overcome. I spent much of the morning reading various lists and polls of what people were giving up for Lent. Some of the top contenders are: smoking, high calorie junk food, drinking, swearing and sex related vices like “hooking up” or pornography. And while things varied from one list to another, almost every single list I came across included Facebook or other social media.
While I want to make clear I applaud most efforts at self actualization; I am also reminded that Lent is really not about a time of self improvement. This is how we often approach Lent though. It becomes a second chance to live out those New Year’s resolutions that we have fallen off the wagon with.
But Lent is about following Jesus. The Epistle to church in Philippi provided this invitation to its readers:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
The per-incarnate Christ emptied himself. The NIV says “he made himself nothing.” For centuries, at least for Trinitarian Christians, the Greek word κένωσις (kénōsis) has indicated that what we see in Jesus is not some cosmic Superman who has the power to overcome temptation because he is from another place. Rather, the Son of God set aside his divine prerogative to enter sympathetically into our plight and show us what life – human life – at its absolute best, led by God’s Spirit looks like. It is our sharing in that Spirit – God’s Spirit – that enables us to have consolation from love. It is our sharing in God’s Spirit that provides us with compassion and sympathy. It is our sharing in that Spirit that allows us to have the very mind and love of Christ. It our sharing in that Spirit that enable us to put aside our own selfish ambition or conceit and regard others higher than we do ourselves.
According to the gospel tradition preserved by Mark’s community, it was this same Spirit that descended upon Jesus at his baptism and then immediately drove him out into the wilderness where he stayed for forty days and was tempted. As we follow Jesus there during Lent, our journey is not about self improvement. Though it definitely has the power to transform us for the better. This journey – like the whole of the Christian life – is about becoming a better lover of God and neighbor by following Christ’s example.
Christ did not set aside sins or “bad habits.” Rather, in the incarnation he set aside divine privilege for the sake of others. And in the wilderness he did not give up indulging on too much bread. Rather, he continued to set aside power, prerogative and even forewent the basic gift of food.
This time of year it is common to hear a lot about giving up vices. But let us remember that traditionally vices were not thought by Christians to be practices that had no intrinsic worth or value. Rather, a vice is a misappropriation of something that is a gift from God. The gift used appropriately, and with appreciation helps form virtue.
A single 450 calorie paczki or a cigarette (as hard as it is for me to admit) may not have a lot of intrinsic value or virtuous uses. Perhaps, in extreme moderation.
But alcohol certainly has an appropriate celebratory use. Words and language are certainly good gifts from God. And I am of the belief (and have been every since I was 12 and first viewed Rattle & Hum) that even a timely “Fuck the revolution” has its place. Sex is a wonderful gift that helps foster love, mutuality, companionship, commitment and great pleasure between two people willing to say with their whole lives what they say with their bodies.
And then there is social media. Oh Facebook (and to a lesser degree twitter) how I love thee. Unfortunately, sometimes too much. Such excess and anxiety producing time consumption is not virtue forming. I hope some time away will help me remember all of your good uses: to keep me connected with family and friends, to share information and art and other important ideas, keep family and friends updated on our call process and all of the ups and downs. I will miss you the next 40 days.
If you are a procrastinator like me and trying to decide in the mid-afternoon on Ash Wednesday what to give up, I would encourage you to remember Jesus’ example. Remember the difference between virtue and vice. And finally consider that traditionally the things we set aside for Lent we bring back out and feast upon on Easter Sunday. This is similar to another Christian tradition of setting aside the proclamation “Alleluia!” or “Hallelujah!” in song and liturgy and then belting it out in praise on Easter Sunday.
This is why I urge people – when they ask – to give up things with more intrinsic value rather than the things with less for Lent. Do you want to have an all day cigarette smoking marathon on Easter? Probably not. Rather, I would consider setting aside something we really want, maybe even something we need, for a time, to pull it out again on Easter and enjoy it as we celebrate the risen Christ. The same Spirit that led Jesus to the wilderness will guide us in our Lenten wilderness. And having used this time to form in us a deeper and more meaningful habit of abstaining, we may be surprised at how it leaves us empowered to exercise more control over our lives in those areas that are really less about love of God and neighbor and more about self improvement and observing cultural mores and politeness. We do this – as Jesus did – for the love of God and the sake of others. So may this time help foster in each of us those evidences of a life of love: patience, kindness, humility, hope, endurance.
Grace and Peace,
Many years ago a friend’s mother was going through an excruciatingly difficult patch of life. She reported at that time that she was done with the God of her Christian faith. My friend – a seeker – who I have never heard claim to be a Christian was nonetheless quite disappointed with his mother. I remember clearly he said “She knew all of these years that things, much, much worse than this happen to other people, but she still believed God was good. But now that she is going through some shit she doesn’t believe!?!?!?!”
His words have stuck with me and still haunt me all of these years later. The Judeo-Christian tradition has has struggled with this throughout history. ‘If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God by loving God, walking in God’s ways, and observing the commandments of God, then you shall live and become numerous, and God will bless you in the land’ says the deuteronomic historian and the purveyor of proverbial wisdom.
But there is an older, deeper wisdom seen initiated in the Abrahamic narrative. God calls Abram and blesses him and gives him a new name based on nothing he has done. And God declares Abram righteous not because of the good things he has done, certainly not for the lack of respect Abram showed in God’s presence (Gen. 15) but simply because of the deep faith Abram placed in God, a faith that waxes and wanes. But a faith that God nonetheless sustains. Why? Abraham was blessed to be a blessing. Not just a blessing to his family and friends or people he likes but to all the families of the earth.
God calls faith communities into existence to be a blessing. We are to be living breathing serenity prayer. We are called to bless others by changing everything we can for the better and by offering the hope that someday, some how God will make right all of the things that we are powerless to change. And it takes a life of seeking after the oldest deepest wisdom to know the difference.
We so very often forget what our story really is, who we are and where we come from as a covenant people called to service in God’s kingdom. Like Jonah, we collapse inward into self protective pockets of people obsessed with preserving our “us and them” distinctions. Other times we collapse outward, conflating our call to declare the greatness and goodness of God with our own efforts to be agents of peace and justice. And so over and over again it seems that faith communities need to proclaim their story aloud and be reminded that we are blessed to be a blessing.
For the Christian community this means we pick up our cross to follow Jesus. We heal where we can. We dine with social outcasts and we still lend our energy to those we would deem to be the religious hypocrites of our time, even when it wears on us. We show no partiality because God shows no partiality. We mourn with those who mourn and dance and celebrate them in their triumphs. We even bring the wine to their parties. And when we mourn, when we face “the shit” as my friends mom did we may cry out ‘my God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ To do so is actually to declare our faith that God is still good when life is not.
Grace and Peace,
A lot of ministers who have been in the biz for a while often liken the search and call process in Reformed Polity to dating. With all of the phone calls, awkward first encounters, getting excited planning a tentative future with someone who is just not that into you while rejection letters pile up I certainly understand what they mean by this. Maybe your church and I were made for each other?
Name: Wayne W. Bowerman
Ecclesiastical Status: Ordination pending first call
Passions: Long walks on the beach. Puppies. Partnering with people who strive to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with his or her God (one of these is actually true)
Pet Peeves: Gum chewing. Complaining. David Crowder/Chris Tomlin-esque worship music (All of these I have been guilty of indulging in at one time or another. One of these I am willing to compromise on, especially for a group of people who share passion number 3 above).
Churches and pastors actually do have “profiles” in our denomination. And there is a website where ordination hopefuls and ordained clergy without a church (or unfulfilled in their current relationship with a church) can go and check out what churches are currently single (that is without a pastor).
Seriously, this is what it feels like some days. I mean no disrespect. One of the reason I gravitated to the Reformed church was for her system of polity. I believe that – at least in theory – it is a great balance between congregationalist polity (the extreme of which is the laissez faire non-denominational structure I grew up with) and the hierarchy of an episcopal polity. I mean no disrespect to my friends in these other traditions either. I believe all forms of church governance have their strengths and weaknesses.
So since May I have had 7 or 8 interviews. I have had 4 rejection letters, 2 withdrawals from candidacy, and about 20 more profiles/resumes gone completely unacknowledged.
But c’mon! I am ready for something serious. I have been dreaming of this for much of my life. I spent the last 8 years preparing for this. I graduated seminary in may. It has been nearly 9 months. Some days I feel I am ready for a shot gun wedding Sometimes I think I wish I had a bishop to appoint me somewhere.
Through all of this my family’s prayer has been and continues to be that God will guide each church in the search process to a candidate best suited for the task of nurturing their particular congregation and their broader community and that a call will open up for us at the place where our family can best flourish and be a blessing to others. We pray the same for any other candidates and their families and invite you to join us in that prayer.