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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Never Give Up

What are you giving up for Lent? Is it Facebook or Twitter (I trust it is not reading the "Choosing Hope" blog!)? Is it chocolate or beer or coffee or steak? Perhaps it is something more abstract like prejudging or worrying or criticizing. What, if anything, will it be?

More to the point, why would we "give up" something for Lent? As I offered the invitation to the Lenten journey at our worship services yesterday, I was struck by the answer to this question. We give things up to be better prepared for the battle. We strip things off to run a better race. We lay down the things that would inhibit our capacity to fight the Evil One. We take up new weapons for precisely that task.

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses," writes the author of the Book of Hebrews, "let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us..." (12:1). Giving up is not an exercise for the self-absorbed. This is penance with a purpose. This is stripping off the excess baggage so we can run the race.

There can be, of course, personal benefits in the Lenten discipline. We are not in the business of self-flagellation because we are so bad. We do not subject ourselves to self-denial just because it feels so good to stop. Indeed, less television will make us better and happier people. Reduced exposure to Internet sniping and processed sugar will lower our blood pressure and improve our attitudes. Greater patience and loving-kindness will help us sleep better and see others in a more charitable light.

I am not giving something up for Lent. I am, however, taking on some additional personal development. I am taking a free course on Positivity offered by Dr. Barbara Frederickson through the MOOC vender, One of the ways to run a better race is to reduce the negativity in our lives. That can be a fine benefit of giving something up. One of the other ways to run a better race is to increase the positive emotions and experiences in our lives. There's no law against such positivity, even in Lent.

So, give up or take on! Or do both if you're up to it. But let us keep our eye on the prize. The writer of the Book of Hebrews continues the race metaphor with precisely that encouragement: "looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God" (12:2). If giving something up clears your vision of Jesus, then do it. If taking something on enhances your vision of Jesus, then do it.

Either way, keep running the Lenten race to deepen your faith, hope and love. Never give up!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Lenten Devotional Resource

"Devoted"--our little Lenten devotional book at Emanuel, written by congregational members.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

We All Fall Down--Ash Wednesday

We All Fall Down
Ash Wednesday
2 Corinthians 5:20ff.

“Ring around the rosy, a pocket full of posies.
Ashes, ashes—we all fall down!”

That little children’s song produces great controversy.  Some scholars say it’s a playful code for a very dark reality.  They suggest that the song describes the Black Plague in the Middle Ages.

The rings are the horrible rashes the plague produced.  Bodies and homes of the dead were burned to remove the threat.  European civilization nearly collapsed in the chaos of the pandemic.

Others say this is all nothing but an urban legend.  The song is part of an innocent children’s game.  Nothing more sinister should be imagined.

I don’t care one way or the other.  But “Ring Around the Rosy” feels to me like something deeper than a game.  We dance through our lives looking for happiness and fleeing from sorrow.  Yet, the ashes are inevitable.  Indeed, we are dust—and to dust we shall return.

Ash Wednesday worship is not going to make anyone’s list of “Top Ten Fun Things to Do.”  I think, however, it is the most honest day of the church year.  We ARE dust, and to dust we shall return.  We ARE in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.  We all HAVE sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  You can do the denial dance for a lifetime.  But we all fall down in the end.

You and I wear the ashes because we will not embrace the dance of denial.  But those ashes are shaped as a cross.  They have that shape because they are not the last word. 

In the space the ashes occupy, there is a deeper cross.  Right in that spot, someone marked you.  They said, “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”  Ashes, ashes—we all fall down!  But we also get up to live a new life.

It is no accident that we move from ashes to the Lord’s Table.  We all fall, but we get back up.  We do that because Jesus Christ has done it first.  Paul reminds us of this in Second Corinthians five, verse twenty-one. 

“For our sake God made him to be son who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Jesus Christ fell down to death for you and me.  He gets us to give us new life here and now.

The ashes are so thick around us these days.  They remind us of our mortality.  They remind us that we won’t live forever.  They remind us that we can’t control everything.
We are covered with the dust and ashes of grief and pain.  We are so lonely.  A loved one has died.  An important anniversary has come and gone.  Our bodies no longer work as they’re supposed to.  A chronic illness just won’t get better.  A relationship refuses to be healed.  Perhaps we are facing our own death.  A child heads off in a direction that panics us.  A marriage comes apart.  Things aren’t turning out like we planned.

We all fall down.  And Jesus Christ gets us back up.

We trudge through the dust and ashes of this world.  War rages near and far.  People are afraid.  Power is more important than peace.  Values are whatever serves the folks who are in charge.  Truth is in the eye of the beholder.  Love and sex are commodities best used to sell cars and beer.

We all fall down.  And Jesus Christ gets us back up.

And when we get up, he uses us to raise up others.  We all fall down.  And Jesus Christ gets us back up. The wonderful Lutheran composer, John Ylvisaker, wrote it well: God has made a new beginning from the ashes of our past; In the losing and the winning we hold fast.” (Ylvisaker, “We are Baptized in Christ Jesus).

We all fall down.  And Jesus Christ gets us back up.  Amen.

Stirring the Ashes

A message from Ash Wednesday, 2011
2 Corinthians 5:17

I’ve taken a couple of canoe trips to the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota.  Campfire management is one of the most important tasks in that vast wilderness.  Campers must properly extinguish their campfires.  Failures in this task can result in criminal penalties.  Huge forest fires have been caused by people who didn’t take the time to get this right.

Putting out a campfire in the Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe Area is a three-step process.  First, you pour lake water on the fire pit.  Second, you stir the ashes to find any remaining hot spots.  Third, you pour more water on those hot spots.  Repeat the process until you are sure the fire is completely out.

Stirring the ashes.  That’s what we do on this Ash Wednesday.  We stir the ashes of our past.  We hear some troubling words.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  These are troubling words because it’s painful to stir the ashes of our past.  It’s painful to uncover the pain, the grief, the anger, the shame and despair in our past.  But if we are to put out the fire, we must stir the ashes.

We stir the ashes around, and the hot spots re-appear.  Remember that you are dust.  But if that’s all we do, then the fires of our brokenness will just re-ignite.  The hot spots of our past will burn our broken spirits to the ground.

Think about the process for putting out the campfires.  First, pour on the water.  You and I are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection.  We are joined to him in death and in life.  God has “reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given to us the ministry of reconciliation.”

Second, stir the ashes.  I can look with courage at the ashes of my past because I know that Jesus holds my past, present and future.  “For our sake,” Paul writes, “he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Third, pour on some more water.  “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see everything has become new.”  We keep setting new fires and creating new ashes.  But God’s love in Christ is new every morning.  We can be new creations in Christ every day.

So take some time in this Lenten season to stir the ashes of your past.  For me, it’s the pain of grief and the anxiety of being alone.  For you it may be guilt and shame over past failures.  Perhaps you wrestle with past sins or current fears.  Maybe the uncertainties of the economy or jobs or politics or war have overwhelmed your trust and hope.

Stirring the ashes of our past.  That’s what we do this evening.  The waters of baptism quench the deadly fire.  New growth can arise in place of those ashes.  So come and wear that cross of death.

Come wear that cross of death.  And know that Jesus washes it away with life.  Come wear that cross of death.  And know that Jesus turns it into the sign of your New Creation.  Come wear that cross of death.  And know that you are made into the very righteousness of God through Jesus Christ.

Stirring the ashes of our past.  It’s what we do tonight.  Making us new creations in Christ.  It’s what God does tonight.

Thanks be to Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit’s power.  Amen.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Power of Doggie Disengagement

Our Viszla dog, Bella, loves to play fetch up and down the main hall of our house. S(he also has, on occasion, chewed up her own bed--as you can see--but that's another story). We toss her plastic ball down the hall. She streaks to fetch and is back almost before we have recovered from the toss. She is an amazing athlete.

Bella loves one thing more than fetch. She prefers tug of war whenever she can engineer the opportunity. She brings the ball back and entices us into grabbing it. Then she pulls and shakes until she nearly dislocates our shoulders. Bella has massive muscles relative to her size. It's easy to imagine her snapping the neck of a rabbit with one shake.

Tug of war may be fun for her, but it's no picnic for us. And no matter how we train, she is reluctant to drop the ball for another fetch. It runs counter to her instincts. The one way that works is for the thrower to begin to turn away from her. Rather than lose her tossing partner, she drops the ball and waits for a throw.

Here's an illustration of a basic principle. In a competitive relationship, any response is a reward. That's especially true in difficult conversations. When we grab the ball and try to wrestle it away from Bella, she tugs even harder. And for her, that's part of the fun. A response is a reward.

So here is the power of disengagement. When we can let go of an argument, the other person loses a source of power. Any response is a reward. When we can disengage, turn away, even for a moment--then the tug of war will lose its momentum. We don't have to permanently surrender. That's a different tactic. But we can refuse to grab the ball and pull.

Disengagement is a key to halting the downward spiral of any difficult conversation. Can I let go of an issue long enough so that the other person will drop the ball as well? Knowing about this dynamic will help us to let go.

But if that's too challenging, there's always the small bladder tactic. No one is really going to argue if you ask for a time out to relieve yourself. And even that small break in the conversation can be enough for both parties to let go of the argumentative rubber ball.

Even though her instinct is to hang on for all she's worth, Bella experiences far more fun when she puts the ball down. Then we are more likely to toss it again and again. And that's really her goal in this interaction. Part of our job is to help her overcome her instincts in favor of her happiness.

That's really the needed strategy in any difficult conversation.