Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

One of the things I enjoy, when I have a free Sunday, is to visit other congregations. I enjoy worshiping in places and traditions that are different than my own. It reminds me that there are many ways of “doing” church – but there is one Lord, one faith, one hope, based on one God (Ephesians 4).

It is especially interesting to visit other churches during special seasons, such as the Easter season. And so, a couple of times, I have taken in an Ash Wednesday service as Lent begins.

ash-wednesdayHonestly, it feels awkward having someone mark my forehead with ash. It’s a bit embarrassing to walk around with the ash on my head. It’s outside of my comfort zone, and outside of my tradition. I can’t help but wonder if people notice, and what they think.

But isn’t that part of the point? Shouldn’t I feel awkward, knowing that the ash represents my mortality? Shouldn’t I feel humbled, as I recognize that the mark on my head is a symbol of my sinfulness? And just because it’s outside of my church tradition and my comfort level, does that mean I can’t learn from it?

The Church has had 2000 years to develop various ideas, practices, traditions, and belief structures. Some I have deep concerns with; some seem past their prime; but many of them can be a way to wrestle more deeply with my humanity, my mortality, and my immorality. Ash Wednesday is one of those.

Maybe it doesn’t work for you. And certainly there are folks who treat it as a magic cure for the sin that ails them. But for many, even most, I suspect that Ash Wednesday is a helpful reminder – a reminder of our brokenness, the brevity of life, and the basic need all of us have for the grace of Jesus Christ.

In fact, Ash Wednesday reminds me of one of my favorite verses in the Old Testament: Psalm 103.14. In context, verses 8-14 read (NRSV):

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
    nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
    nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
    so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
    so far he removes our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion for his children,
    so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
    he remembers that we are dust.

I’m dust. You’re dust. God knows we are dust. Even so, he chooses to surround us with His steadfast love. In fact, precisely because we are dust, God pours out His mercy, which is enough, no matter how dusty we are.

So, feel free to celebrate, or ignore, Ash Wednesday. But don’t miss the opportunity to use next Wednesday, and the season of Lent that it inaugurates, to open your heart and life to God. And be reminded how dependent you are on the grace only God can give.

The Power of Belonging

Belonging matters. For belonging shows what matters to you. And belonging helps shape you into what matters.

Tell me what you belong to, and I’ll tell you who you are. What you commit to – whether it’s a political party, or the Kiwanis, or even Weight Watchers – is about more than what you are a part of. It’s a glimpse into who you are.

This is one reason I am serious about the Church. Despite the fact that Church can be difficult at times, belonging to a church family reminds us that the most important thing is the journey. And necessary to the journey are folks on the same path, as we encourage each other, challenge each other, love each other – and the world.

So, I believe that belonging to a church matters.

One of my seminary teachers, Bruce Shields, tells of preaching at a country church while he was in college. In that congregation, there was a woman named Carrie. She was dirt poor, and lived in a little shack halfway up the mountain. One Saturday afternoon, after she was absent for a number of Sundays, Bruce went to visit Carrie in her home. When he knocked on the door, he heard her moving around inside. It turns out, when Carrie realized who was at the door, she had gone into the back room to wash her mouth out – so her preacher wouldn’t see her with snuff.

When Bruce finished his ministry at this country church, he noticed that nearly everyone was there on his last Sunday. But not Carrie. After the service, when the church was having a party for Bruce and his wife out on the lawn, he happened to catch sight of Carrie. She was limping down the road carrying a big bucket full of ripe huckleberries that she had picked off the bushes high up on the ridge.

Bruce describes it this way: “No gift has ever meant more to me than that one – not only the berries, but the burden. I recall only one gift from that farewell party – it came from a dirt-poor, lame, uneducated, snuff-dipping, loving servant of Jesus Christ. She taught me that everybody has something to give.”

Because, you see, the Church is a place where all of us are invited to belong. And in the belonging, we are changed.

Bruce goes on to describe a number of other regular folk in churches where he has served – and the lessons they have taught him. God, in His great wisdom, knew we needed a place to belong. It’s not a perfect place, because everyone is welcome – and, well, we people tend to be messy. And it’s hard, because, as people, we tend to have opinions, feelings – and sometimes we just get grumpy. But at the end of the day, when we set down roots in a church family, and commit to knowing this particular group of folks, and growing with this particular group of folks – well, something amazing happens. We are changed. And Jesus is made known, as His perfect grace flows through His very imperfect people.

So, I’m grateful for the Church. I can’t imagine anywhere else I’d rather belong.

Postscript
If you’re reading this, and you are a part of the church where I serve (which is probably 80+% of you), here are a couple of things coming up at Fern Creek where you have the opportunity to say: I belong. Here.

  1. This Sunday and next (Feb 19 & 26), we are looking to get a number of video clips of people in our church simply saying: I belong. Let me encourage you to take a few seconds to say that very short phrase in front of the camera. We plan to take these clips and make a collage of folks saying, in their own way, “I belong.” On Sunday, follow the signs to the “Living Room,” where we’ll have a video team ready to record you. And don’t be afraid of the camera. Because, remember, we’re with you in this – for we belong together.
  2. Sunday, March 5, will be I Belong Sunday. This will be a day for all of us who call Fern Creek Christian our church family to simply, but powerfully, commit to being a part of what God is doing at Fern Creek. Mark March 5 on your calendar, and plan to belong.

My first (and last?) movie review

I’m not a big movie guy. One, I don’t like spending a lot of money to watch something for 2 hours. Two, I don’t like spending 2 hours watching something. And three, I don’t like spending 2 hours watching something that, often, wasn’t worth the 2 hours.

But I recently saw a movie that cost a whopping $3. And that was for two tickets. So, the price was right. And it was a movie I knew I wanted to see, for it was based on a book I had just read. A book that gets in your head and makes you wrestle with what you think you know. So, even though I went into the theater knowing the movie was 161 minutes long (do the math; that’s way beyond my two-hour limit), I was ready.

The movie? It’s simply called Silence. Based on a 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo, it focuses on three priests who go to Japan in the 17th century as missionaries. At the time, Japan is a brutal place for any who claim the name of Jesus, and the story highlights the way these 3 missionaries deal with the challenges of leading others to, and living for Jesus, in such a harsh environment.

I won’t give away the ending, but in short, these 3 have to make excruciating decisions based on their faith. And while I would love a clean and simple ending, the movie, and especially the book, simply don’t give one. Because life, and faith, and the human condition can be so messy and unpredictable. And sometimes, even though we long for words, a clear message, a sign from God, or just something – we often don’t get it. And we have to choose, anyway.

silence-bookIf you’re a reader, let me encourage you to read Silence. If you’re a movie person, and even if you’re not, let me encourage you to see Silence – in the theater (though hurry, it’s only showing in one cinema near my house), or, when it becomes available, at home.

And don’t watch it alone. Watch it with someone – believer or not– for you will want to process the movie with someone. Because, frankly, you can’t watch Silence and not come away with words – as you grapple with faith, God, and the human condition.

Way too much of Hollywood’s money is spent on pointless and vacuous blockbusters. Silence is definitely NOT one of those. So, go. It’s worth the time. And the 3 bucks.

Take it Easy?

I’ve been thinking lately about the word easy. I like things to be easy. How about you?

I want traffic to flow smoothly, always. (Why does the guy in front of my keeping hitting his brakes?)

I want technology to work the way it’s supposed to, every time. (Argghh, why isn’t the internet working?)

I want my bathroom sink to say clog-free, with no work. (But I live with people who seem to shed lots of drain-clogging hair.)

The truth is: life isn’t easy. And, though I hate to face this reality: It’s not supposed to be. Cuz here’s the deal: most anything that matters is going to require that I roll up my sleeves, get dirty, and do the hard work in front of me.

Recently, I was visiting a member of our church who is in a nursing facility. We sat and talked in the community room, and when I had finished, I said goodbye, and walked to the elevator to leave. I pushed the button, and waited for it to arrive. And waited. And as I did, I noticed that a group of employees had gathered at the nurse’s station, talking. While they did that, there were a number of the residents sitting all around them.

Finally, the elevator arrived and I headed down to leave. As I was heading to the door to leave, I realized: Dohh! I forgot my coat on the 6th floor. 

Why can’t life be easier? Why can’t I remember stuff?

Anyway, I got back to the 6th floor, grabbed my coat (which, of course, was right where I had left it), and headed back to the elevator. And as I waited (again), I noticed: a few of the employees were still standing around, talking. As they did, one of the residents was calling out: Where’s my ice cream? I want my ice cream. One of the workers told her she had already had her ice cream – and basically left it at that.

Why? Because it was easier standing there talking to friends.

Now, it’s easy for me to critique those workers. Because, I, like them, like things easy.

But then I think about the things in my life that matter. Being a husband. A dad. A follower of Jesus. A minister. Tell me again, Jeff: which of those roles that you have voluntarily signed up for, are easy? Each one – as with so many parts of my life – are not easy, and shouldn’t be.

If I’m going to be a faithful husband, it’s going to take work. And anybody who thinks differently will likely get to find out how easy it is to get a divorce (not). Likewise, if I’m going to be the father of 2 teenagers and one young adult seeking to find her way in the world, it is going to be anything but easy.

And how about following Jesus? Anybody find that easy? Well, if you’re really striving to follow him, it’s not going to be. And we can’t say that Jesus didn’t warn us; you know, that whole “take up your crossthing.

Perhaps one of the deepest challenges of all the wonderful technology that has come our way is that it tends to lull us into a false sense that the better life is the easier life. That the pinnacle of a life well-lived is the comfortable life.

Folks, it’s a lie. A lie that goes all the way back to The Garden. And it’s not that technology isn’t helpful (it is), or even life-enriching (it can be). The lie is that we can somehow “technologize” our way to easy – and by finding easy, we find the life the Ancients could only dream about.

I have a friend whose tag line on the bottom of her email reads: “I don’t need easy; I just need possible.”

I think there’s some truth there. We aren’t promised easy, nor should we expect it. But with God’s grace and God’s help, we can expect possible.

So, where in your life are you accepting comfort, when you should be receiving a challenge? Where in life are you seeking to sit still, when you really should be standing up? 

Where are you looking for easy, when you should be striving for faithful?