Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, the seventh Wednesday before Easter Sunday, and it is the first day of the Season of Lent. Its name comes from the ancient practice of placing ashes on worshippers’ heads or foreheads as a sign of humility before God, a symbol of mourning and sorrow at the death that sin brings into the world. This is a somber day of reflection on what needs to change in our lives if we are to be fully Christian.

Fasting, or going without something, has long been associated with Lent. So I wondered yesterday, “What distracts me or takes my attention? What occupies space that could be given to reflection? What can I give up that would help me ponder what needs to change in me to be more like Christ?” The answer was easy: FACEBOOK.

In spite of how useful FB has been in connecting me with old friends and family members, I’ll confess it is the biggest distraction in my day. Sometimes on slow afternoons at the coffee shop Facebook feels like a needful distraction. But most of the time it keeps me from listening to the people who are right in front of me and prohibits me from reading anything meaningful or challenging.

So for forty days I won’t know if you lost a sheep in farmville, got whacked in mafia wars, if it was your birthday, who you became friends with, what cause you joined, or if you found a fish. Hopefully though, my mind and heart will be uncluttered.

Advertisements

Rhythm

Six years ago two friends convinced me to try something new: Backpacking. Most of my activities up to then had been more traditional sports. So when they asked me to go for a 52 mile walk in the desert with 45lbs on my back I hesitated a bit. “I can’t get the time off.” You can get the time off. “I don’t have the gear.” We can loan you the gear. I won’t know what to do.” We’ll show you what to do. Jeff and Larry removed every excuse I could come up with and I went. A day doesn’t go by that I’m not thankful for their persistence and that experience. It wasn’t just a great trip. God used that trip to work in two specific areas of my life.

I arrived at the trailhead that night as a total mess. I was struggling in every area of responsibility. I was lacking confidence as a husband, father, pastor, friend, and man. And beyond my questions about time, gear, and know-how I was being hounded by the BIG question: “Do I have what it takes?” For five long days I would carry that question with me which was much heavier than anything in my pack. John Eldredge, author of Wild at Heart, says that is the question every man needs to answer. We need to put ourselves in situations where we’re confronted by it.

Last February I was hiking with 12 great young leaders and we discussed this question. Brandon pointed out that we should not be left alone to answer such a big question. “Do I have what it takes?” should only be answered in community. Until I started backpacking that type of community was missing in my life.

The other area God began to work in had to do with the rhythm of my life. I was the perfect example of the phrase, “If you don’t control your calendar your calendar will control you.” I believe God wired into us the need for sabbath which is the keystone of our schedule. It is not simply time off or they day you go to church. There is a pattern of preparation, participation, and reflection. Treks became sabbath for me. They helped me to think of sabbath in a very Hebrew way. I would spend time preparing for it. Then I participated in it. Then I spend time reflecting on it until it was time to prepare for the next.

Every February since then I’ve prepared for a backpacking trip…every February except this one. So I’m feeling a bit out of rhythm. Fortunately I get to spend some time this weekend with a few of my friends who God has used to teach me, shape me, and who not only ask but help me answer great questions.

Doubt

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I think. I’m trying to pay attention to things that stir me, things that cause me to recoil, things I agree with, things I question, the books I choose to read, the things that don’t make sense, and the concepts that seem true but I struggle to articulate.

I have come to the conclusion that my first reaction is usually to doubt and push back…especially if it is neatly packaged, sounds religious, or could fit on a bumper sticker. Initially I wasn’t sure how I felt about this admission. But the more I think about it – the more ok I am with it.

I’m ok with it because I have met a lot of people in Christian circles who live with a sound byte theology. They depend on well timed phrases like; “God is in control,” or “God has a plan,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” I have developed a distaste for those statements. Without doubt those comments and others like them are conversation killers. Each of them are like a trump card thrown on a complicated kitty of issues. There is nowhere to go other than to fold up your hand and toss them in.

I’m ok with it because I don’t think God is afraid of tough questions. I don’t think He is put off by our doubt. I don’t think He is offended by the haggling people give him. In fact, I think He enjoys it. I say that because there were some pretty prominent people in God’s story that not only believed that, they lived it.

Abraham questioned God about His desire to wipe out an entire city. “What if there were 50 innocent people? What if there were 45, 40, 30, 20, 10?” David was called the man after God’s heart and yet some of the conversations they had were so intense they make me squirm with discomfort. And then there was the man God’s people were named after. At birth he was given the name Jacob which means ‘deceiver’ but after a night of wrestling with an angel his name was changed to Israel, which means ‘God prevails.’

God named His people after a guy who refused to let something go. A guy who pushed and pulled. A guy who wouldn’t settle. So my friends I say, “Doubt on. Push back. Receive it as your birthright. Embrace it as a part of your journey.”

Following

It’s encouraging me to read the account of Jesus. I love his stories, the way he treats people that others ignore, and the things he does to give us a better picture of God. Even people who don’t like Christians, Christianity, or the church often admit there’s something about Jesus that is appealing. This morning I think I most appreciate his simple invitation: “Follow me.”

When I flip through the pages of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John I don’t find him giving long to-do lists to the people he encounters. And I still haven’t found one incident where he says, “Repeat this prayer after me,” to someone hoping to connect with God. What I do find time and time again is, “Follow me.” For those who accepted that invitation, their path weaved in and out of people’s lives and situations, they received cheers and jeers, they were questioned and affirmed, and they learned the art of living a life intermingled with divine.

The very nature of being a pilgrim is change, movement and progress. A life of following is dynamic not static. That means transition will always be part of life. I’m reminding myself this morning that it’s a necessary part of following Christ. I’m reminding myself that it’s good not to know all the twists and turns that lay ahead. I’m reminding myself that faith has always been an adventure. (By the way, adventure literally means “an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity”)

I don’t want to leave anyone thinking that stepping out into the unknown is easy. It never is. But we will never know the fullness of following if we don’t.

A friend stopped by the coffee shop yesterday and gave me the prayer Mother Teresa prayed for her Sisters of Charity as they leave to serve:

Dear Lord, the Great Healer, I kneel before You, since every perfect gift must come from you. I pray, give skill to my hands, clear vision to my mind, kindness and meekness to my heart. Give me singleness of purpose, strength to lift up a part of the burden of my suffering fellow men, and a true realization of the privilege that is mine. Take from my heart all guile and worldliness that with the simple faith of a child, I may rely on You. Amen.