Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Eeyore in the Wilderness

This week's scriptures are Exodus 15:22-16:3 and Luke 4:1-13.

As I read and re-read this passage from Exodus and set it in its position in the Exodus narrative, it is as if somewhere between the choir singing "How Great Thou Art" and "His Eye Is On The Sparrow" Eeyore had come to the pulpit to proclaim in that famous sliding voice of depression: "O well, I guess we're doomed. There are no more thistles to eat; my stick house has blown over; and my tail has fallen off again."

Three days prior Miriam has been leading the women in singing "Sing to the Lord, for he has risen up in triumph: horse and rider he has hurled into the sea." Now at Marah they are complaining because the water there is bitter. But wait...there's more. Shortly after this we hear the words, "If only we had died at the Lord's hand in Egypt, where we sat by the fleshpots and had plenty of bread! But you have brought us out into this wilderness to let this whole assembly starve to death."

This "grumbling in the wilderness" is going to be an ongoing theme or motif throughout the Exodus journey. Which would be okay, I guess, if it wasn't so close to my own behavior as I travel from Lent toward Easter.

I begin to question what I've gotten myself into committing to Lenten Spiritual Disciplines that leave me uncomfortable and longing for the soothing objects or behaviors that I committed to taking a break from. I forget that the discomfort I'm feeling is a part of the process of guiding me toward the healing that I need to encounter in God's time and grace. And I begin to look backward toward the past through what some call the "pink cloud" of forgetfulness. When we look back through the "pink cloud" all the problems of the past are erased...they just disappear. I am treated to only the really good parts of my memories of gobbling down a large pizza (remember last week's blog?). My mind gently lays aside the memory of painful heartburn and instant weight gain.

Listen to the "pink cloud" version of life in Egypt where "we sat by the fleshpots and had plenty of bread." Perhaps meat and bread were provided by their Egyptian taskmasters (though I doubt it); but gone are the memories of whip and crushing labor and the Pharoah's power to make arbitrary decisions ranging from "more bricks with less straw" to "kill all the boy babies."

But beyond the obvious concerns about water and food is, I think, a deeper concern. And it is a concern that rears its head any time we step away from an 'attachment' or 'addiction' or 'soothing mechanism.' It is the dual concern of Dependence and Faith. Now they (the Israelites) and we (you and I) have to depend on something we cannot control. The bitter water at Marah is made sweet-not because of something they did, but because of something God did. The 'fleshpots of Egypt' will be replaced by a gift that they cannot control (more about that next week).

See, part of the issue with 'soothing behaviors' is that they are based on a "bondage mentality" that says, "I'd better take care of my own needs; because nobody else is going to." Now we may have come by this mentality honestly. And our sense that we have to utilize our own drive, skills, and talents may have served us well....for a while. But when we are called to make ourselves dependent on God in faith that God will guide us toward healing and wholeness and the Kingdom of God....it becomes a barrier. It is hard to let go, to trust....at least that's my experience.

Another important point is that this 'roller coaster ride' between Praise & Adoration and defensive grumbling is a given part of the journey. Maybe instead of flogging ourselves over it we can spot it when it comes and ask ourselves, "I wonder why this is happening now?" That question, even if we've just finished gobbling down a large pizza may help us get back on the track of looking at what is going on with us, what needs to heal, what God is trying to teach us.....which is, we remember, the point of all of this in the first place.

Hope to see you Sunday.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Blocks To Beginning the Lenten Journey

This week's scriptures are Exodus 5:1-6:9 and Luke 4:1-13.

As I promised in my last blog, the scriptures for the entire Lenten season are listed at the end of this blog.

I'm going to be writing and preaching from the perspective that we're all engaging in some, or all, of the Lenten Spiritual Disciplines outlined in the last blog. That we're trying to practice the Fasting, Scripture, Pray, and Charity in the way described.

If we have chosen some thing or some behavior that we find we have come to use in an unhealthy fashion; something that soothes us in a way that narrows our abilities to deal with the issues in our life that need addressing; something that focuses us away from growth and maturity as God's people....then the Exodus story of Pharaoh's response to Moses and Aaron will feel very familiar to us.

Let's say, for example, that I know that when I've had a difficult day at work...one that makes me question my competence and my heart for doing ministry and therapy...that I am prone to stop at the local pizza place and order a LARGE pizza. Notice that I don't order one slice. Oh no! I will order a large pizza, and on the drive home (about 45 minutes) I will consume 6 of the 8 slices. I become focused on my eating. I don't really enjoy it. I'm eating too fast for that. But I'm cramming food into my mouth to ease my pain at what the day has brought-pain that I don't want to deal with. Frankly, the eating becomes almost unpleasant. But I create a situation in which if God tried to say to me, "hey Stephen, let's talk about why you're feeling this way. Let's look at what happened today and your expectations of yourself and others. Let's maybe even talk some about where and how you came to believe that you needed to be able to fix everybody's pain-and if you couldn't, you were a failure.".....If God came to me with that kind of invitation, I probably wouldn't hear it; and if I did, my response would probably be, "I'd love to maybe do that later, but right now, I'm busy eating this pizza." And I'd drive on home to my heartburn.

The truth is that the minute you and I make a decision to step away from our Pharaohs, to fast from our pain killing behaviors....they turn up the heat. When scripture tells us that after forty days of fasting 'Jesus was hungry' it's a major understatement. When we make the decision to take the journey away from the things that enslave us, you can bet that breaking free enough to even begin the journey will not be easy.

I do not say this to pronounce Doom and Gloom on your day. I say it, actually, to be some comfort. This struggle to begin the journey is part of the territory. It is not a judgement on our desire, or our love for God. We we can see it as such...as a given part of the process...we can deal with ourselves, and each other, with a compassion that makes this difficult journey more understandable. There are enough real difficulties on the journey without creating them out of our unreasonable expectations of ourselves.

So, instead of stopping for pizza, let's imagine that I listen. That I see the urge to cover my pain with pizza sauce for what it is...and I listen. In my prayer and meditation on the way home perhaps I will experience God touching my need to be perfect. Perhaps I will hear God reminding me that my desire to 'fix' things is often my way of escaping how painful it can be to just sit with someone else's painful story. And finally, I may be reminded that the Incarnation was more about God coming to be with us where we are and taking on our pain in that 'being with' than it was about 'fixing it'.

I don't know. I do know that I can expect the heat to get turned up. And I know that I can expect the temptation to reach for that large pizza instead of listening to how God might use my day will be very strong. This is how I find my story in this particular Biblical story. And in that finding, I become more charitable (see how this works?) to others that I know, love, or work with who reach for their own "large pizza" when they feel overwhelmed.

And so we begin our journey together. Including the scriptures above, those for the remainder of Lent are:

2/21 Exodus 5:1-6:9 and Luke 4:1-13 (the Luke passage will be used for 3 weeks)

2/28 Exodus 15:22-16:3 Luke 4:1-13

3/7 Exodus 16:4-36 Luke 4:1-13

3/14 Exodus 31 Luke 4:1-13

3/21 Numbers 21:4-9 John 3:1-17

3/28 Numbers 13:17-14:4 Luke 19:28-40

Please pray for me and for all the others who will make this Lenten journey with us; in whatever fashion they will make it. May this time be one in which our hearts are opened and we find God waiting for us with the healing, restoring presence that Christ brings to us.

Hope to see you Sunday.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Ash Wednesday, Lent, and the Journey Through the Desert

Scriptures for Ash Wednesday's beginning of the Lenten Season are Exodus 1:8-22, 3:1-14 and Luke 4:1-13.

This blog is a bit longer than others I've written. But I hope you'll bear with me. This writing is intended to help us move into the season of Lent and to lay the groundwork for the Bible study and worship that we'll be sharing as well as suggest some personal ways you might chose to approach this important Christian season.

On Wednesday, many of us will have ashes placed on our forehead as a sign of repentence and to mark the beginning of the Lenten Season. The ashes symbolize our desire to "turn" (that's what the word repent means...to make a 180 degree turn) from the things that block our life as God's people. They also remind us that life is short. None of us is here forever. Our opportunity to make a gift to God of our lives is limited by number of our days. The word "Lent" comes from the Germanic word for springtime. Like a good gardener we look to prune and tend our lives so that they will move toward becoming what we believe God desires us to be (and, as every good gardener knows, creating a garden is a process of years, not days). And so, each year, we remind ourselves and one another of our need to do the work of shaping and moving and turning that will aid our journey as God's people both individually and collectively.

There are four basic tasks or "disciplines" that have traditionally been associated with Lent. They are very personal. But when a group of people, a prayer group, a congregation, a family engage individually in these personal disciplines, their life together is shaped by them. As each member tends the garden of their personal lives their corporate life together is altered. Below is a brief description of each. I've put them in the order I have to suggest a way (not the only way, but a way) that they may link up for us in our personal journey:

Fasting. Please think about this as more than not eating. Though, for some, this may be about food, for others it is about other things. Ask yourself, "How do I sooth myself when I am anxious, angry, ashamed? What is my 'emotional crutch'?" It may be that you become overly critical of others (perhaps just in the secrecy of your own heart while smiling sweetly at them). It may be that you use alcohol or drugs to excess. It may be that you over work, or over spend. It may be that you turn to pornography. It may be that you become violent in some way. It may be the way that you eat. There is a standing joke with a therapy group I lead that when we've had a bad night I can stop at Pizza Hut just outside my building and buy a large pizza all of which I will eat on the way home. So it's not just what we do, it's how we do it. Often, when we answer this question honestly, we feel a bit uncomfortable or ashamed of the answer. I would invite all of us (myself included) to name for ourselves one of the things that we sooth ourselves with, and 'fast' from it during this Lenten season. What we will find is that the thing we're 'soothing': our feelings of inadequacy, our fear of failure, our fear of relationships; will rise to the top. This is scary, I know. But it is only when it 'rises to the top' that it becomes visible in a way that we can begin to deal with it. A word of caution...there will be a strong temptation that when you give up the one soothing thing and the anxiety comes to the top, to turn to another soothing mechanism rather than sit with, and deal with, the thing that we've been soothing. But this is the very thing that we need to "prune" to bring in our worship and prayer to God.

Scripture. This Lenten season I will be focusing us on the Exodus journey as a way to look at our own spiritual journey. It is a time honored tradition, both within the Jewish community and the Christian, to look at the Biblical story and ask ourselves "how is this my story?" to see the Biblical story as an expression of what we, in some way, are experiencing as well. Before Ash Wednesday I will post on the blog the scriptures I will use for the weeks of Lent so we will all have them. Let me invite you to daily read the passages for the coming Sunday. This means that when we come to worship together we'll all have read the passages at lest 6 times. Then, as you think about what has 'risen to the top' as a result of your fasting, ask yourself: "what do these passages say to my condition?" "how is this story, my story?" "what do these passages call me to do now?" and "how does this story reflect God's grace in my situation right now?" You might even want to keep a journal each day as you answer those four questions in light of your reading. As we re-read the passages each day they will open up new avenues of thought. Don't think that one reading on Monday is all it takes. Watch what happens in you as you do this.

Prayer. We've fasted; and seen what comes to the top. We've read; and looked for ourselves in the Biblical story. Now we pray. We come to God and say something like: "O Loving God, my fears of failure haunt me. I see myself in the Children of Israel complaining and being willing to go back to Egypt rather than move out into the unknow desert. O God, speak to me, and help me listen." Then: Sit. Be quiet. Give yourself time and freedom to hear what God is saying to you. When you've heard, you may want to write that down as well in your journal.

Charity. Having fasted and seen what risens to the top. Having found ourselves in the Biblical story. Having brought all of this to God in prayer and meditation and heard what God has to say to us. Now we ask ourselves, "how do I give to others in a way that reflects what God has done for me through these spiritual disciplines?" My friends in 12 Step programs say, "Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all areas of our lives." Another way to think about it is the definition of evangelism as "one beggar telling another begger where to find food." How can we share the 'feeding,' the healing, the comfort that we've found in our work with 'another hungry beggar?' An example might be something like "I grew up poor and always worried about the next meal. To soothe that fear that still haunts me, I've criticized those who are on welfare or need help. Now, having seen how I am anxious, and remembering that fear, I will donate time each month to My Brother's Pantry or to a local soup kitchen."

These disciplines will, by their very nature, push us to the limits of our personal comfort zone. If we can do them and not be disturbed....we're not doing them right-we're not being honest with ourselves. This being pushed to our emotional and spiritual limits is often triggered by tragedies or traumas in our lives: the death of a loved one, the lose of a job, etc. During the Lenten season we follow Jesus' example of allowing ourselves to be led into the wilderness. This situation goes by many names, depending on who is describing it: The Dark Night of the Soul; the Night Sea Journey; a Spiritual Exodus; the Desert Journey. It was the model for Dante's Inferno and other great writing. It is, in my mind, a model for what happens in Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Counseling.

But it does push us to the limits of our comfort. It takes us out beyond what we know, or feel safe with. It is not a journey to be taken lightly. Our worship together on Sundays will attempt to share some parts of our journeys and to nurture one another for the continuing journey ahead. This is a time we might want to be able to share some (though not necessarily all, since a lot of what happens in this process is deeply private and personal) of what is happening with us with a friend, or spouse, or pastor. Pray for someone you know who is also engaged in these disciplines, and ask them to pray for you. And as I attempt to follow these disciplines through Lent as well, I would ask that you pray for me.

I know that this blog is read by folks both inside the Broadneck Baptist Church family and folks from other places. I pray that our Lenten Journey will be one that transforms us all and brings us closer to the God who loves us and the Christ who came to make that love flesh and bone.

Hope to see you Sunday.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Another Visit With the (Now) Not So Silent Demon

This week's scriptures are (still) Jeremiah 1:1-10 and Luke 4:31-44.

This past weekend's snow caused us to cancel our worship service. And so we'll be continuing to look at the passage from Luke that was discussed in our last blog. What I want to do now is to build on that blog and those thoughts as we continue to peel away the layers of that particular story.

Last week's blog talked about the silent suffering of the man in the synagogue and some of the sources of that kind of silent suffering among us now.

But now; watch what happens when the demon does open its mouth....when it senses the threat coming from the presence of Jesus (by the way, you can find some of this discussion for yourself in the Anchor Bible):

The Greek word that is translated "Ha!" is an expression of displeasure or suprise. It's followed by the question "what do you want with us? Have you come to put an end to us?" First of all the whole conversation is screamed at Jesus. It is an expression of hostility based on the demon's understanding that the Day of the Lord meant the end of demonic control of human beings (the "us" in the question is not the demon and the man; but demons as such).

Jesus' coming represents the end of the dominion of the demon and its cohorts...and the demon knows it. No wonder it screams.

One of the other things that comes up in my reading around this whole issue of 'demons' etc. is that they weren't just thought to be personal in nature. One of the phrases used is the "dominion of Belial" who is translated in the OT as "worthless" and seen as the personification of arrogance and pride. Some translate the name as "yokeless" which is an interesting idea since a 'yoked' oxen or other animal is often paired with another so that its strength can be put to use. Jesus invites His disciples to "take my yoke upon you and learn of me; for my yoke is easy and my burden is light." The indication may be that 'Belial' is worthless because in arrogance this demon is unwilling to serve. The name is also applied in the OT to persons with these attributes (e.g. the men of Gibeah in Judges and the sons of Eli in Samuel).

My point in this little 'word study' is that the evil that Jesus encounters here in the synagogue isn't just associated with the personal difficulties of one individual (though that is important); but with issues of social justice (the Judges account) and religious corruption (the sons of Eli)....with greed and guilt and sin in all its forms.

The demon asks Jesus, "have you come to destroy us?" and the answer is most assuredly "Yes." When Jesus screams back at the demon and restores the man in the synagogue the first expression of the Kingdom promised in Jesus' visit to his home synagogue ("to let the oppressed go free") has been realized.

But it doesn't stop here; and it doesn't stop with Jesus. Our liberation from our own tormenting difficulties (the personal) cause us to follow Jesus in seeking the liberation of all and to combat all that oppresses them (the call to personal care for others as well as social justice).

The battle with all that would seperate us from God goes on. We are called to live in the hope of the promise that "nothing can seperate us from the love of God" even as we work against the things that make relationship with God difficult: "I was hungry and you feed me, naked and you clothed me, homeless and you took me in."

In these two stories: first in Nazareth and then in the synagogue in Capernaum; we see the unfolding of Jesus' understanding of His mission and of the Kingdom of God which He will bring to pass. Luke lays this out for us before he has Jesus inviting anyone to follow Him or become His disciple. Luke's reason for this, I believe, is to make clear the importance of that decision and the magnitude of the claim it will make on Jesus' disciples in what ever time they are found. We'll talk more about that next week.

Hope you'll join us in worship on Sunday.