Why do they call it ‘Fasting’ when time seems to go so slowly?

ImageHey there Superfriends and Blogofans,

I figure I deprived you all of your guilty pleasure blog during Lent, so I at least owe you an explanation for how it went.

The short answer is that it went well.  No TV, Facebook, or blog was quite healthy for me.  We stopped having family dinners around the boob tube.  My wife and I noticed an increased frequency of much-needed heart-to-heart talks.  I was also able to reconnect with one of my dearest friends via email.  We live less than half an hour away from one another and see each other at least once a week, but we never seem to have time to talk.

One unexpected bit fun is that I made leaps forward in my music that I’d been trying to accomplish for years.  Back in college, I was really into the whole bleeding-heart Christian folksinger thing.  But by the time I graduated, I was really sick of two things:

  1. “Christian” music.
  2. Four chords, three verses, chorus, and bridge.

I was turned on to Michael Hedges and U2.  I had this idea in my head of a sound that combined fingerstyle acoustic guitar with chillout electronica.  Over the years, I haven’t had the means to make this happen.  A year or so ago, I started learning about synths and drum machines when I purchased an amazing software package called Reason 6.  A little later on, I also invested in a Yamaha USB interface for my guitar.  But I couldn’t get the interface to work right… until now.

Without the distraction of social media, I was able to put a lot of time and effort into it.  I can remember the moment when the breakthrough happened.  It was about 4:45 on a Thursday afternoon.  The interface was finally operational (thanks to the correct software drivers, which took forever to find) and I loaded a kind of funky, Latin electronic riff I had started working on with my brother-in-law last year.  The track had everything but a melody.  When I started improvising over the top with my acoustic, it was like watching a solar eclipse.  I never knew that something coming out of my hands could sound so good!

So that, Superfriends and Blogofans, is what made my Lenten exercise worthwhile.

However, since this season is supposed to be “spiritual” (whatever that means), I should probably say a few penitential words.

I caught myself (and was caught) cheating on the fast on more than one occasion.  If anything, this exercise showed me just how addicted I am to this never-ending stream of digital information that pulses through my eyes to my brain.  Even now, having been off the fast for over a week, I can still feel the dopamine hit I get every time I log on.  I’m not kidding, it feels like I’m getting high.  When I was off-line for extended periods of time, I got that anxious feeling like the room didn’t have enough air in it.

It’s well-known among those who fast that fasting never feels spiritual.  You just feel like crap the whole time.  What fasting does is highlight your inner struggles by taking away the addictive crutches you use to anesthetize yourself against the stress of living.  It makes you face reality in all of its shitty splendor.

That never feels good, but if you stick with it, you gain a tremendous amount of insight and self-knowledge.  You are so much more aware of what it is that you need to work on in your life.  In the end, it’s a fruitful exercise, but it sure is no fun.

So yup, I’ve apparently got stuff to work on.

Thanks for sharing the journey with me!

“Tis’ grace hath brought me safe thus far and grace shall lead me home.”

Befriending the Cross

Michael Servetus (1511-1553)
Michael Servetus (1511-1553)

Hidden in the annals of Christian history are stories we’d rather not tell.

The Church of Christ has not always done well at emulating the life and love of its Lord and Savior.  As a matter of fact, we’ve been downright evil for much of the time.  One need only mention the Crusades or the Salem Witch Trials to get an idea of what I’m talking about.  One such example comes from the very roots of our own Presbyterian tradition:

Back in the 1500s, when John Calvin was preaching in the Swiss city of Geneva, a guy named Michael Servetus blew into town.  He was on the run from the Catholic Church after being arrested for heresy and then breaking out of prison.  Servetus was a Unitarian, meaning that he did not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity: the belief in one God, consisting of three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The fugitive Servetus made a bad choice in putting Geneva on his travel itinerary.  John Calvin, whose opinions had a powerful influence on city politics, had no more love for Servetus than the Catholic authorities had.  Calvin himself had previously written to a friend, “If [Servetus] comes here… I will never permit him to depart alive.”  And Calvin made good on his threat.  As soon as someone recognized Servetus attending worship at Calvin’s church, he was arrested, tried, and burned at the stake for heresy.  Michael Servetus’ last recorded words were, “Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have mercy on me.”

This is part of the dark side of Presbyterian history.  John Calvin is still remembered as the founder of the Reformed Tradition, of which the Presbyterian Church is a part.  In 1903, Calvin’s spiritual heirs in the city of Geneva erected a monument to the memory of Michael Servetus on the spot where he was burned.  The inscription on that monument condemns Calvin’s error and acknowledges that the true spirit of the Reformation can only exist where liberty of conscience is allowed to flourish.

It’s too little, too late for Servetus, but the gesture acknowledges that we’ve at least made a little progress in half a millennium.

In so many of these cases of heresy trials and stake burnings, there is an oft-repeated label that has been misappropriated from the New Testament and applied to the opponents of established orthodoxy.  That label is: “Enemies of the cross of Christ”.

You might have noticed that very phrase appearing in this morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Paul wrote, “[M]any live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.”

And just who are these “enemies”?  Paul is not clear on that.  At various points in church history, this term has been applied to Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, Unitarians, and basically anyone else who’s theological views differ from the person applying the label at the time.  “Enemies of the cross of Christ” is a derogatory epithet used to identify others as “outsiders” and “heretics”.  Most of the time, it has been applied to emphasize doctrinal differences between religious groups.

I believe that such use of this phrase does violence to its original meaning in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  You see, in that letter, Paul never suggests that one’s religious affiliation or theological orientation are determinant of one’s status as an enemy of the cross of Christ.  For Paul, the truth goes much deeper than that: so deep, I would say, that the essence of this message can be found in the spiritual teachings of every mystic and every sage in every culture, every place, and every period of history.  Paul’s message of the cross is the story of people graduating from their small, self-centered lives to the larger, reality-centered Life.  Some have called it conversion, some salvation, some liberation, and some enlightenment.  For Paul, as for most Christians, the central symbol for this process of transformation is the cross of Christ.

The cross is the single most recognizable Christian symbol in the world.  Historically speaking, it was of course the instrument of torture and execution on which Jesus was killed.  Symbolically speaking, Christians have attached multiple levels of meaning to its significance.  Starting about a thousand years ago, a full millennium after Jesus was born, a British writer named Anselm of Canterbury came up with the idea that theologians now call “substitutionary atonement”.  You might not have heard that phrase before, but you probably have heard some preacher on the radio or television saying, “Jesus died for your sins.”  Substitutionary atonement is currently the most commonly known and accepted interpretation of the significance of the Jesus’ crucifixion, but the idea is only about half as old as Christianity itself.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul presents an entirely different understanding of the cross.  For Paul, the crucifixion event cannot be understood apart from the story of Christ’s resurrection.  According to Paul, these two events form a unified whole.  Neither one makes any sense without the other.

The crucifixion and resurrection, taken together, form the central image of the Christian spiritual journey.  In the process of transitioning from a self-centered to a reality-centered life, every Christian must undergo a kind of death and resurrection.  As Paul himself wrote elsewhere, in his letter to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”  Earlier in his letter to the Philippians, he writes in a similar vein:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

In this early Christian hymn, Paul lays out the path of self-emptying, the path of the cross, which leads to resurrection and exaltation by God.  And this, he says, is not only the journey of Jesus himself, but also of every Christian who claims to bear his name.  Paul begins his hymn with the exhortation: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”.

A Christian then, in Paul’s eyes, is one who walks the path of the cross, who dies to the old, self-centered life and rises to the new, reality-centered Life.  One could say that a Christian is a “friend of the cross of Christ”.

By contrast, those who are “enemies of the cross of Christ” are those who refuse to walk this path of metaphorical crucifixion and resurrection.  The Buddha might call them “unenlightened”.  Muhammad might call them “infidels”.  Harry Potter would probably call them “muggles”.

What can we learn about these “enemies of the cross of Christ”?  Well, since this status has more to do with one’s way of life than with one’s religious affiliation, I think we can say that they might belong to any tradition or no tradition at all.  We’re just as likely to find them in pews as in bars.

Here’s what Paul has to say about them: “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly”.  This is an interesting way of putting it.  When Paul says, “their god is the belly” he obviously doesn’t mean their physical abdomens.  The belly is where one’s food goes after it is consumed.  The belly, in this sense, is the seat of desire.  The people who refuse to let go of their small, self-centered lives are worshiping their own desires and addictions.  What they want/need is most important to them.

For them, the primary concern is “my food, my money, my country, my church.”  Everything is all about I, me, my.  There is no big picture or larger context in which they see their lives.  That which benefits them is universally good.  That which hinders them is universally bad.  In every story, these folks never fail to cast themselves as either the heroes or the victims.  They’re always on the side of right.  They have all the answers.  Anyone who disagrees with them is a heretic who deserves to be burned at the stake.  This is what self-centered worship looks like.  These folks are what Paul refers to as “enemies of the cross of Christ.”  There is no self-sacrifice for them.  There is no denial of desire for the greater good.  There is no responsibility beyond one’s responsibility to one’s own self.  Self-centered existence.

What is the end result of this way of life?  Paul says it quite clearly: “Their end is destruction”.  This self-centered way of thinking and living can only lead to pain and death.  This is not some mysterious, mystical idea.  Think about it: what kind of world would this be if neighbors never went out of their way to help each other?  What if friends and family never forgave each other?  What if no one answered the call of charity or the obligation of justice for those who suffer?  I don’t know about you, but that’s not a world I would want to live in.  That selfish mentality can only lead to destruction, as Paul warns us.

The way of the cross is the way of sacrifice.  Jesus could have called upon his mass of followers to rise up and fight if he so desired.  Instead, he chose to walk the path of nonviolence.  He chose to suffer pain, rather than cause it.  He chose to die, rather than kill to protect what was rightfully his.  In so doing, Jesus set himself apart from every other revolutionary movement leader of his time.  His selfless sacrifice did not go unnoticed or unremembered.  He left his followers with a symbol and an image that would change the way they look at the world.

Christ’s willing submission to crucifixion, according to Paul, is the basis for his sovereignty over all creation.  For his followers, it is the model we follow for living our lives in the world.  The end-result of crucifixion is not death, but resurrection.  “Humiliation”, according to Paul, is transformed into “glory”.  Followers of the way of Christ must befriend the cross because it is the only way into the “abundant life” that Jesus intended for us to have.

Paul’s warning about the “enemies of the cross of Christ” is not a wholesale condemnation of those who hold different theological views from Paul’s, or John Calvin’s, or mine.  Paul’s warning applies to all of us, no matter what religion we espouse.  With tears, Paul is pleading with us to realize that our little lives, ruled by our own selfish desires and preferences, lead only to destruction.

The flip side of Paul’s warning is that those who befriend the cross, who walk the path of self-sacrifice for the greater good, like Jesus did, are sure to receive resurrection, salvation, and enlightenment.  These are the true saints, the blessed ones who discover the meaning of life.  These are the real Christians: the friends of the cross of Christ.

May it be so for you, for me, and for all who seek the greater good, the life abundant, in the name (or the spirit) of Jesus Christ.

Out to Lent

Dear Superfriends and Blogofans:

The past twelve months have been amazing for me on this blog.  I’ve had two separate posts go semi-viral and catch the attention of some of the biggest movers and shakers in my denomination.  Many of you have emailed me (and a few have even called) with encouraging words about what this blog means to you.  Your words have kept me writing when I otherwise wanted to quit.  Thank you.

I’ve come to see what I do here as part of my larger ministry in the world, no less significant than what I do from the pulpit on Sunday or in my classroom during the week.  I have been especially touched by the messages left by those who self-identify as exiled or de-churched Christians.  I hope that my presence in your life via this blog is part of your healing from the wounds of the past.

As social media occupy an increasingly central place in my life, I think it is imperative that I learn how to integrate them into my life in a harmonious and holistic way.  Many others have voiced concerns about the effect that these media are having on our ability to communicate with one another.  Our technology has outpaced our ethics.  We need to occasionally step back and take stock of where it is that technology has brought us, how it is that we got here, and what it is that we want to do next.

I have noticed this technological imbalance in my own life.  Whether I am at work or play, I spend most of my time in front of TV and computer screens.  Things that need doing sometimes don’t get done because there’s just “one more thing” I want to watch or do online.

The liturgical season of Lent is, for me, a time for self-reflection and restoring the balance of life.  During these next 40 days, I’ve decided to unplug from electronic entertainment and social media.  I’ll be updating my blog with my weekly sermons and checking Facebook on Sundays (which don’t count as part of Lent).  I’m also allowing myself to watch one half-hour TV show on Sundays because I don’t want to fall too far behind on the final season of The Office.

Other than that, you can find me reading a book, tuning my guitar, playing with my kids, and (believe it or not) cleaning my house.  I hope to use this time to reflect on my relationship with technology and social media.  I hope to return with a greater sense of clarity about what this technology is for and how it is that I wish to conduct myself in its virtual environment.

I’m not going totally off-grid, though: I’ll be checking email for professional purposes and answering the phone.  If you need to talk to me for personal reasons, feel free to give me a call!  I get the sense that I’ll be craving conversation.

I’ll see you again at Easter when this blog kicks back into action!  Until then, make sure to check in weekly to read the sermons!

As always:

Be blessed and be a blessing.


Repent! Think Different.

This morning’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville.

The text is Mark 1:9-15.

Three brothers grow up together in Dublin, Ireland.  When they come of age and go off to make their way in the world, they make a pact: whenever they drink, they’ll always order three pints of Guinness, one for each brother.  One of the brothers settles in New York, where he finds an Irish pub and becomes a regular.  He explains the pact to the barkeep, who always knows to bring him three pints.  Then, one fine day, the man comes in and asks for only two pints.  The barkeep realizes that one of his brothers must have died.

“Condolences,” he says as he brings the pints over, “these are on the house, on account of your loss.”

“What are you talking about?”  He says, “There’s no loss.  I just gave up drinking for Lent!”

I think this guy has the right idea about Lent.  He’s creative!  He’s thinking outside of the box.

Traditionally, this is the season of the church year where they really turn on the guilt.  A lot of people talk about “giving something up for Lent.”  This tradition got started way back in the olden days when new church members (called “catechumens”) would spend several weeks spiritually preparing themselves for baptism on Easter Sunday.  They would pray and fast for extended periods of time, sometimes intentionally going without food for days on end.

Eventually, this practice was extended to all Christians and has been watered down to the point where people symbolically try to break a bad habit or deny themselves some minor luxury, like chocolate, during the 40 days before Easter (as if going without M&Ms for a few weeks was really supposed to be spiritually empowering).  Our scripture readings in church during this time tend to be a little more somber in tone.  For example, Jesus starts his sermon in today’s reading from Mark’s gospel with a call for people to “repent.”

I don’t know about you, but that word (repent) stirs up some very specific mental images for me.  Maybe it’s just because I grew up down south in the Bible Belt, but I have several memories of fiery preachers on street corners with signs that said things like, “Repent, sinner!”

These guys (they were usually male), had a knack for going into great detail about the pains of hell that awaited those sinners who would face the wrath of God on the Day of Judgment.  The only way out, they said, was to repent.  And by repent, they mean: convert to (our version of) Christianity and feel really, really sorry for all your sins.  Do that, and maybe (just maybe) God won’t burn you in hell for eternity.

So, that’s their story.  I think I want to tell a different one.  I think we need to take a good, hard look at that word, repent, and see what it actually means, rather than let some fire-breathing preacher do the job for us.  The word repent in Greek is metanoia, which literally means “to change the way you think.”

Do you remember that series of advertisements for Apple Computers that came out about ten years ago?  They had pictures of all kinds of original geniuses like Albert Einstein, Jim Henson, Mahatma Gandhi, and Jane Goodall.  And next to each person’s photo was the phrase: “Think Different.”  To me, that’s what the word repent means: “Think Different.”  Think outside the box.  Get creative.  Imagine new possibilities.  “Explore strange, new worlds.  Seek out new life and new civilizations.  Boldly go where no one has gone before.”

So the, what is it that we’re supposed to “think different” about?  Well, the full text of Jesus’ sermon from today’s gospel reading goes like this: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

We’ve already talked about what “repent” means.  What about the rest of it?  As many of you already know, one of my favorite phrases in the entire Bible is, “the kingdom of God has come near.”  A lot of folks like to think of “the kingdom of God” (a.k.a. “the kingdom of heaven”) as a happy place that exists way up on some cloud or in an alternate dimension where people go when they die, but that’s not how Jesus uses the phrase.  Listen to what he says again, “the kingdom of God has come near.”  Another way to translate “has come near” is “is at hand.”  Let’s try something.  If you’ve been hanging out here for a while, you’ve probably done this with me before, but we’ll do it again, just so the message sinks in.  Hold your hand out in front of you and look at it.  Jesus says, “the kingdom of God (heaven) is at hand.”  How far away is heaven?  As close as your own hand.

For Jesus, the kingdom of God is a present reality.  It has to do with this world.  The kingdom of God is Jesus’ vision of what this world would be like if God were allowed to be in charge instead of the powers that be.  In a world where “might makes right,” Jesus has the audacity to stand up and say, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” and “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”  Remember the Berlin Wall?  It stood for decades as a symbol of the barrier between democracy and communism.  The powers that be on both sides of that wall had their guns and missiles pointed at each other around the clock.  Do you remember how it came down in a single night in 1989?  It didn’t happen because we Americans scared those Russians away with our big, bad nuclear weapons.  It happened because one East German official mistakenly announced on TV that their borders were now open.  Later that night, as people started lining up at the border, Harald Jaeger, a low-ranking border-guard, made the first decision to open his gate.  People flooded through to the other side.  Within days, the wall was torn down.  Within a year, Germany was reunited.  Two years after that, the great Soviet Union itself was gone.  An entire generation of Americans and Russians was raised to believe that the Cold War would end with a mushroom cloud and the fulfillment of Mutually Assured Destruction.  But it ended with dancing instead of marching, singing instead of marching, and the sound of champagne bottles being uncorked instead of the sound of gunfire.  Who could have imagined such a peaceful resolution?  “The kingdom of God has come near.”

Now, that’s a big-picture example.  I think the kingdom of God comes near to us every day.  Whenever we’re at the pharmacy, café, or supermarket and we look the server in the eye, “the kingdom of God has come near.”  Whenever some jerk cuts you off in traffic and you don’t give him the finger or blow your horn out of spite, “the kingdom of God has come near.”  Whenever two people in conflict sit down together and try their best to work it out, “the kingdom of God has come near.”  Whenever your kid comes home and says, “Mom & Dad, I’m gay,” and the first words out of your mouth are, “I love you,” “the kingdom of God has come near.”  Whenever your spouse is in the hospital and you’re standing by the bed, holding his/her hand and saying, “We’ll get through this,” “the kingdom of God has come near.”

Whenever aging parents agree to let their children hire in-home assistance for them, even though they don’t think they need it, but know that it will put their children’s minds at ease, “the kingdom of God has come near.”

The kingdom of God is a present reality.  It’s Jesus’ vision of what this world could be like.  He calls it “good news” and invites people to “believe in” it.  Have you ever “believed in” something or someone?  Maybe there’s some high school kid who is nervous before that big performance or big game and the coach or teacher says, “I believe in you.”  It’s empowering, isn’t it?  A statement like that can really make a difference in a kid’s life.  And I don’t care how old you are, whether you’re age 9 or 90, we all still need to hear that from time to time: “I believe in you.”  In the same way, you might donate your time and energy to cause you believe in: feeding the hungry, taking care of young kids, or helping underprivileged families have a Christmas.  When you believe in it, you give yourself to it, and that makes a difference.  Jesus called it “good news.”  He invites all of us to believe in that good news: “the kingdom of God has come near.”

And that leads us back to that word, repent.  It’s has nothing to do with guilt or fear.  It has everything to do with thinking outside of the box.  The great scientist Albert Einstein once said, “A new type of thinking is essential if [hu]mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”  Jesus is inviting you today to embrace the mystery of imagination and participate in the miracle of creativity.  Think different in order to make a difference.  That’s the “good news” Jesus is inviting you to “believe in” and be part of: the kingdom of God come near, the kingdom of heaven-on-earth.

We pray for it every Sunday:

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”