There’s a point during the Lenten season’s journey when I desire to get out of it. I don’t have a specific reason that I feel “over” my repentance – because I certainly do not ever think that God owes me anything for my prayers of forgiveness. It’s just a feeling of being ready to rejoice in the renewal of life, the birth of spring, opening day at The K, the resurrection of life on earth if you will.
It starts with Saint Patrick’s Day, almost in the middle of Lent. Not very much of me is Irish, but I do have quite a bit of Welsh in me, hence my surname, so I’m Celtic, but not Irish. Really, I love Saint Paddy’s Day more for the excuse to braise a corned beef, drink a pint of Guinness, and listen to some fantastic Celtic music! This is where the longing for a reprieve of the season of repentance begins for me.
This year, as I have said before, Lent feels like it never quite went away from last year’s liturgical trip around the sun. Pandemic inflicted isolation from worshipping and celebrating with other humans in the same ample space has really put a damper on my desire to “tone it down” for this year’s season of fasting. So we hit the calendrical demarkation for Saint Patrick, celebrated a bit, and then couldn’t put the idea of celebration and joy away for the remaining 17 days of this season.
So when we broke out the palms this last Sunday to begin Holy Week, I really felt the excitement that Easter was near. Then the creeping guilt that I have been in far too good of a mood leading into the most tragic story about Jesus’ sacrifice for our freedom. I know God’s not upset with me for my optimistic feelings – God understands. God knows what we went through in 2020!
But, it’s the very idea that this pandemic may be coming to an actual end in the not-too-distant future. In Kansas City, infection rates are continuing to decline, and optimism is in the air. It’s a very similar feeling of optimism when we see the batter knock the ball into center-right field, and it rolls past the outfielder! The batter has swiftly rounded second and now third base, heading for home, attempting an inside-the-park home run.
We aren’t quite at the point of rejoicing for goodness, quite yet. We have another 5 days for that, but we are starting to get up out of our seats and cheer. We can see that a call of “safe” by the umpire at home plate could happen, just like we can see God calling us safe because of Christ’s coming sacrifice.
I’m sure everyone has heard the proverb about spring weather, “March comes in like a lion, out like a lamb.” After the first week of March, I can say that age-old saying isn’t just precise about the weather – this could be a forecast for my spiritual climate, as well. I have been weathering a proverbial storm with just enough awareness to realize that eventually, all difficult things will pass.
If anyone knows us, you know that our dogs are a big part of our lives. They teach us so much about ourselves that we are truly grateful for their presence and love. There are few things more challenging to handle than seeing someone or some-dog you love struggling with pain and discomfort.
That has been the case this last week with our little girl, Cinnamon. Since early January, she has struggled with a bad case of digestive problems. This sickness isn’t anything new for her or us – but this time, it’s been different. She had not recovered in the usual time that we expected, and she was getting worse.
This last week, her problems came to a head, and it was time to take her in for a “near emergency” visit with her veterinarian. Upon arrival at the animal hospital, the staff had the same concern and quickly performed an ultrasound test. They found things that didn’t look healthy; Cinnamon had a liver and gallbladder that looked like a cancerous infection had developed.
We were sent home by an extremely-concerned doctor with new medications to try a last-moment effort to thwart whatever may be plaguing Cinnamon. Upon checkout, we scheduled a full-diagnostic cancer screening for the following Monday morning. We headed home with a sinking feeling of sadness, and I found myself emotionally preparing for the worst.
It wasn’t death and the end of Cinnamon’s life that had me feeling dread; it was the thought of her being in pain and torment while alive. My whole life, I have always thought of myself as a “fixer”; you know, someone who will drop everything to help anyone struggling or in need. It’s kinda the Modus Operandi of any trained firefighter. I couldn’t “fix” Cinnamon and her pain in this particular case – leaving me at a loss over what to do.
The last-minute decision to get Cinnamon to the vet meant that I had to cancel my attendance at a church committee meeting – and I’m very uncomfortable coming across as unreliable! When I sent my regrets through email, I let everyone know the unavoidable issue we were facing with Cinnamon. My comfort zone isn’t letting others know about my struggles or that I may not “have it all together,” but in this case, like so many other cases, I needed to share.
The reception of prayers from the group was what Cinnamon and her two human parents needed! Comfort and healing indeed came from a Holy place over the next couple of days as we awaited her full-diagnostic. Had I not shared with others, she wouldn’t have received the love and spiritual intercessions needed to aid her recovery. When she was fully screened on Monday, the vet could tell she responded well to the new medications and was, in fact, healing! We all were astounded.
Today, Cinnamon continues her rehabilitation, showing improvements daily. I have had such a clarifying moment on the importance of intercessory prayer, I’m left amazed, yet again, at the power of appealing to God. Sometimes we simply need reminders like this, and sometimes we need a swift and Holy kick in the butt!
If Lent is about creating space for God, sometimes that space created isn’t in our daily routines’ convenient and expendable margins. Sometimes, the Holy Spirit blows in and upends those comfortably set boundaries – forcing us to pick up the pieces and reexamine how we constructed our margins to begin with.
One week after challenging Ash Wednesday participants to “go further in, ” I can say that my Lenten practices can be summarized with one word, “difficult.” The idea of an obstacle shouldn’t be a real surprise to anyone who regularly attempts to create space for God’s presence in this late winter/early spring annual practice. After all, many of us give up meat on Fridays, or something more disciplined, like chocolate, for these 40 days.
So far, eight days into 2021’s Lenten season, I can say that I have struggled with my time management. I find that suddenly I have a lot less on my schedule than I’ve had in recent memory. And that’s left me with a real desire to stray from my required reading for school and play around with one of my hobbies — graphic design.
Maybe it’s because I’m seeking out unexpected pleasures in a distraction, or that tempting pleasure is coming on stronger from a darker place? Either way, naming my struggles here is a level of accountability that I haven’t done in the past, and that has to count for something.
Creating space for God to be more fully in my life surely isn’t going to come easy for me. This practice is just that, a practice. This means that sometimes I will be on track. Other times I will veer off and start to focus on the better shade of purple for the church’s live streaming graphics, the design of the aesthetics for Holy Week, or learning the next level of equipment to grow the online service experience; you get the picture…
I suppose that by keeping myself honest in my effort to stay on track, I am, at least, supporting my desire to know God’s love for me better. I know I could stand to love and allow myself to be loved better, and this is a start.
Today we heard from the Gospel of Matthew expressing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount –and not exactly how it was written. We kind of jump around in Chapter 6 here, first hearing about the concepts of almsgiving and how to pray. Then the lectionary writers take us into Jesus explaining how to behave when fasting and where to store up treasures. There’s a lot to make of this passage in a short amount of time this morning!
When I hear Jesus preaching his sermon here, I am compelled to question why He tells us to pray in secret – and to not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. Seems odd that we should be hiding our love for Christ away, doesn’t it? Well, I think there’s more to it than just what comes to mind on the surface. It’s obvious that boasting about the good works I have done would come across as arrogant or even insincere.
If I dig a bit deeper into what Jesus may be telling us, I can see that this idea of secrecy in prayer isn’t just about focusing on my self-consciousness. Jesus is also saying to me that when I pray to God, He knows my true intentions in these intimate moments. We need these intimate moments in prayer to hear what God is saying back to us.
Many of you know that I am a retired firefighter. When we would respond to house fires our primary focus was always saving lives and property – in that order, life first, then property. In my fifteen years on the front lines, the risk and danger never became any easier. You have to put your faith in a higher place, rely on your training, trust your brothers and sisters, and get the work done. Taking a hose that’s fully charged with enough water-pressure to break glass, then run into a burning home – full of smoke and heat and then struggle your way to the seed of this inferno – finally attacking the fire as quickly as possible. The force of the water almost as destructive as the force of the fire itself – many times it takes two or three firefighters to hold the hose in place when you open the nozzle, and the pressure pushes back on you – it’s like wrestling a python.
When I was a cadet in the fire academy, we would spend hours each day learning the basics of preparedness and honing our decision-making skills so to be quick and decisive in the stressful times to come. Self-confidence came with the success of training, and camaraderie with my fellow cadets, which developed in the struggle, was essential to the daily trust-building exercises we endured together. We were taught that going further in-to each house fire was a risk worth the reward of saving lives.
You see, “going further in” is a risky action. Going further in takes a dedication to control your fear, face the danger directly in front of you, and fight it with everything you know you have – and sometimes with everything you don’t know that you have. Along with the developed muscle-memory from training, a lot of faith is needed in those moments. The second you put your face piece from your air pack on and inhale that first breath of air from the tank strapped to your back, you are really putting your safety in God’s hands. It requires a sense of pushing yourself through a biological sense of fear of fire. The reward from a quick extinguishment of that fire could sometimes be a life saved or even the property of an uninsured family’s home kept from destruction.
“Going further in” with God invokes many of the same risks – and sometimes fear – as charging into a burning building, and you all have done work like this too. In the last year, through Andie’s Pantry, you have put out the fires of hunger and uncertainty within the Benjamin Banneker school community. Loading up your cars and driving to unfamiliar neighborhoods, knocking on doors of houses that may not look like yours would and anticipating how they might answer. A moment like that takes courage – reaching out to a stranger and not knowing if your call would be received warmly, and when they answered, you greeted them with a big smile and the kind words of “hello, we are from Andie’s Pantry and we have fresh food and supplies for you and your family.”
So many of you received a warm response, accompanied with a look of hope and relief in their eyes as they realized you were offering a no-strings-attached gift. Ongoing friendships between St. Andrew’s parishioners and Banneker families have developed from these events, creating a new kind of community. Really it was a Holy sacrament of peace and kindness in a very outward and visible way. A risk worth taking, indeed. God had your back.
So here we are, beginning a new Lenten season, after a year that many of us would agree feels like an unending Lenten season from last year. I am sure you have pondered the same question I have; like what could I possibly give up this year that hasn’t pretty much been sacrificed in these last 11 months? Well, I would like to offer this different perspective towards the coming 40 days – don’t look at it as a season of giving up something, but rather a season of “going further in” with God. Creating space for Him and the miracles he has in store for you.
Two years ago, on Ash Wednesday, I committed myself more fully to God. I was at an important time in my life where I realized I needed to “go further in.” I began that season of Lent with the idea of creating intimate space for God to be a part of my daily life. I set about by practicing daily prayer and readings provided by the Youth Ministry’s Jesus Tree. Along with attending regular Sunday services, I sought out community for daily worship by answering an ad in the weekly Messenger to volunteer across the street at HJ’s Youth and Community Center, serving coffee and espresso drinks, and ultimately learning that the beverages and hospitality were just opportunities to see God’s work at play in our neighborhood. I truly began to feel God’s call to me more deeply and fully than ever before.
What I couldn’t have expected was the dramatic entrance God would make into my life during that Lenten season. Since then, I have followed His voice through many proverbial fires and uncovered a few moral wounds I carried from my firefighting days that needed divine healing – and I trusted God every step along the way. I realize now that God gave me the ability to reuse my training as a cadet in the fire academy as I discerned what He wanted from me. So, again, I put on my gear, grabbed my tools, said my prayers, and went right into work, knowing God has my back.
This gear may look a bit different than what a firefighter would wear when responding to an emergency, but the fires that burn can do the same kind of damage. What I have learned from my years of jumping on the fire truck and responding to those calls of help, is to face the risk directly in front of you and respond it with everything you know you have. God will have your back.
So, on this Ash Wednesday, begin something new to create space for God. Try setting aside a few minutes each day for quiet time or join us for 8-1-8 Prayers and pray the daily office with us. Participate in one of our Adult Formation book studies or begin the Jesus Tree family devotional. So, in a Lenten season that looks and feels like it never has before, I pray that you will be able to hear God speak to you like He never has before. I pray you will be able to set aside the space and time for intimate conversation with Christ, and by “going further in” you will experience more fully the hope and love, relief and redemption that Christ brings us in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension during Easter.
So, on this Ash Wednesday – one that looks and feels like it never has before, I pray that you will be able to hear God speak to you like He never has before. I pray you will be able to set aside the space and time for intimate conversation with Christ in the Lenten season to come, and by “going further in” you will experience more fully the hope and love, relief and redemption that Christ brings us in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension during Easter.