What is Lent for you?

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush writes of Lent, “some will fast from mindless consumption of what distracts us; others will offer radical service to neighbor; but what is most important about Lent is that we make time and space for an awareness that God is with us and loves us—even right here and now.”

I love Lent.  I’m glad to be part of a Protestant tradition that doesn’t skip or gloss over it.  I’ve spent some time reflecting this week about why I love it and I think I’ve come to a conclusion.  Praise and joy feel shallow without first having faced the hard stuff.  Easter is only joyous because of Good Friday.  And this mystery of Cross and Resurrection is a reflection of the rhythm of life that is hard for us name.  But if I try to name it, it will sound something like this: Lent is a reset when we get to reflect on the hard stuff that makes the great stuff recognizably great.  And we get there by different means.

About this time each year, we hear people asking one another, “What are you doing for Lent?”  Giving up chocolate, or Facebook, or worrying, or booze are a common response.  We give up something that is a regular part of our day so that each time we reach for it, our attention is turned back to Christ in the wilderness.  We connect with our temptations.  And chocolate might be a daily, less significant one, but hopefully by God’s grace we start forming an awareness of bigger temptations we contend with in life.

Others of us choose to do something for Lent; volunteer at the soup kitchen on Saturdays, add a special, extra time of prayer into our busy day, drop by and talk with our elderly neighbor who we know to be lonely twice each week.  We take up a burden and are reminded of the burden Christ took up for us.  And, hopefully, by God’s grace, we become people who embrace that burden until it no longer feels like such.  It becomes a joy.

Whatever we do to honor Lent, let us do this: hold fast to the why.  Be aware of God’s love and compassion for us.  Connect with things God is calling us to or away from.  Listen hard and be willing to see the things within ourselves that we prefer to overlook.  The great mystery of God-work is happening all the time.  So, may we go into Lent looking for how it is happening in us.  The journey to the Cross is difficult.  But Sunday, God has promised, is indeed coming.  And, it will mean more, Easter will mean so much more, if we have embraced the season of Lent.  Welcome to the season of the night, but go into knowing that joy comes in the morning.


On Not Going through Life without Goals

brett-and-carolAs part of our pursuit of all things New York, Carol and I recently experienced the thrill and excitement of professional hockey.  Our seats were not the best.  We were well out of range of the Kiss Cam.  We had to look down to see the championship banners.  I wanted to shout “Hey, Zebras!  What game are you watching?” but was not sure that made sense from section 209, row 22.

We saw our friends John and Jill Scibilia on the Jumbotron reading the fans’ code of conduct.  I believe the Islanders asked John to do this because he is a fan who needs to be reminded of the fans’ code of conduct.

Hockey is not a big sport in Georgia, so my knowledge is not extensive.  The Islanders’ mascot, an underpaid person in a colossal blue and orange head, is, for reasons I do not understand, Sparky the Dragon.  I also do not understand offsides or icing—which seem to comprise about 2/3 of the referees’ calls.

Hockey has better nicknames than other sports.  Islanders opponents include Blues, Blue Jackets, Blackhawks, Red Wings, Ducks, Devils, Penguins, Maple Leafs (shouldn’t it be leaves?) and Predators (actually “Predators” seems like an unfortunate choice).

Hockey is a little like soccer on skates and a little like human pinball. There were beautiful moments when a skater would turn, spin, and glide majestically across the ice.  Those moments often ended with a huge person knocking the graceful skater into a wall.  Michele Kwan, meet John Cena.  Dentists must love hockey.

I tried to sing along with the tribute to the New York Rangers, “If you know the Rangers suck, clap your hands.”  I offered to buy Carol tickets for Mother’s Day, but she wants to consider other possibilities.

This leads to the perfunctory theological insight that closes church e-news columns.  (I admit this is a stretch and if you only read this column because you love hockey stop now.  You do not need to check this—which may be the worst hockey pun in this column.)  The deep, profound insight is: “We don’t have to stay with what we’ve always known.”  Hockey is now my favorite sport on ice.  (Curling is also a cool sport).

We are tempted to decide what we will do by its proximity to what we have already done.  Maturity is learning that “haven’t been there” doesn’t need to mean “won’t go there.”  There are chess fans who would love hockey if they gave it a chance.  If today is just like yesterday, it may be because we are not seeing the possibilities.



Take a Number

img_5217My earliest recollection of hearing “take a number” was growing up in Mineola on Long Island.  It was at dad’s favorite Italian deli – Ardito’s.  Those who did not appreciate the finer aroma of Italian cheeses referred to this palace of pasta as the smelly deli.  The “take a number” machine was too high for me to reach, so dad pulled the number, gave me the ticket and quizzed me on how to read the number.  He engaged me in counting down as we walked among delicacies and an occasional creeping snail that escaped the basket.  “How many to go before us, John?”  When our number was called I grabbed the gold ring, which in this case was a slice of Genoa salami to be savored as dad was rattling off his wish list to the clerk.  We were rewarded for waiting our turn, knowing when our number was called our wishes would be granted.

Caterina Scibilia was #100186130413 and assigned to Line #19 on Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century.  (Imagine having that number called?!)  It was a long wait.  At the end she grabbed her gold ring – entry into the USA.  More than 22 million people took a number at Ellis Island through 1954.  Many left their homes due to war, drought, famine, persecution and genocide.  Coming to America was rarely a situation of going from good to better.  These refugees saw the Lady’s torch and were aching to take their number and get in line.  The Statue their eyes embraced, originally erected to recognize America’s friendship with France, celebrate democracy and to honor the end of slavery, became known as the “mother of exiles” thanks to a poem written by Emma Lazarus in hopes of welcoming persecuted Russian Jews.

It’s as if Emma Lazarus heard God’s word to the Israelites, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19)  Perhaps she was channeling Jesus’ words in Matthew when he says when you feed, visit and welcome the “least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40b)  How many will we prohibit from taking a number because of how they pray?  Whose numbers will be taken away because of our fear?  Are we willing to forget the Egypt of our past and the numbers and lines of our heritage?  Will we welcome the stranger and live the words with the silent lips of the Lady,

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.

Will we lift a lamp beside our door?  Will all be welcome (really)?


Fear or Fear Not?

Three men were walking together from lunch one day.  Two of the men were not religious.  One of the men was religious.  Along came a stranger in their direction.  He was wearing biker gear, had a shaved head with tattoos covering his neck, and a chain wallet.  Once the menacing looking fellow was out of earshot, one of the non-religious men looks at the other two and says, “Man, that guy looked like trouble.”  The other responds, “Yeah, he was a scary.”  The religious fellow responds to his friends, “What man?”

As people of faith we are called to fear less. The command not to fear is given 365 times in the Bible.  Over and over again that’s what God is saying across the ages.   But, we fear anyway.  We fear all kinds of things.   Nomophobia is a fear of losing cell phone contact.  Gamophobia is the fear of getting married.  We joke about scary in-laws, but syngenesophobia refers to the fear of relatives.  And, this one is risky to mention, but ecclesiophobia is the fear of going to church.  (Not one of you better use this one next time you miss worship.)

Thankfully most of us don’t fear cheese, birds, or the moon because there would be some pretty difficult implications for our lives.  But, we do fear civil unrest, political strife, personal rejection, loss, financial insecurity, and making big mistakes.  The truth is that our biggest mistakes are often the result of fear.  God has been trying to help us see that since the beginning of time.  When we choose fear over love, despair over hope, exclusivity over inclusivity, we are at odds with the good news of the Gospel and we are succumbing to fears.

National fear and unrest is at all-time high.  What do we, Gospel-people, do in times like these?  One temptation is paralysis; to lay low and wait for the storm of unrest to blow over.  Another temptation is to blame and point and proclaim that “I” am not the problem; to pass off responsibility.  But, we are reminded 365 times, to fear not.  Why?  Most often the answer follows the “fear not” and has something to do with God being with us, something to do with good news, something to do with God.

“Fear not,” is also used when there’s hard work to be done that nobody wants to do or knows how to do.  “Fear not,” is what gets communicated to us before a burden gets laid on us.  We are keenly aware of menacing forces in our world, our country, and our own lives that tempt us to forget the call to fear less as people of faith.

The man of faith responded to the fear of his friends, “what man?”  He didn’t see what there was to be afraid of because he looked at the world through a different lens.  He looked through eyes that knew God; knew God doesn’t have strangers, knew God doesn’t see our differences the same way we do; knew God loves us beyond the surface, beyond ethnicity, beyond nationality, beyond religion—all of us.

To Jesus-followers, partisan isn’t most important.  People are.  We get to fear not and love hard.  We get to not make our biggest mistakes because of fear.  We get to stand on the foundation of God-with-us and do the work God calls us to.  That’s the beauty of faith and it’s a gift for which we can be grateful.