Fast Track

FastingScripture Text:  Deuteronomy 8:3

[God] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Lent is typically a season for fasting, for self-emptying oneself  of whatever overfills us.  And yet, fasting, is something that postively eludes most of us who live in this world of instant gratification and excessive consumption.  In fact, “going without” is completely anathema for us so fasting has more than likely been shoved to the back of the storage closet with all those other archaic things. After all, we want to believe in a God that blesses us with showers of abundance rather than a God that might on some days expect us to go without.  I’m afraid many of our somewhat fragile identities have a lot to do with what we have.  What if, instead, we were defined by what we could do without?  (That’s purely rhetorical…I have no answer!)

But fasting has for centuries and centuries been a part of just about every religious tradition.  The ancient Hebrews (and those of the Jewish tradition today) observe a special period of fasting as a sign of repentance on the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur.  Fasting was a sign of mourning or act of reparation for sins.  It was both a way to express repentance as well as prepare oneself inwardly for receiving the necessary strength and grace to complete a mission of faithful service in God’s name.  This was the reason that Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness–not to prove something but to prepare himself for a life of ministry.  Fasting is neither abstinence from nor avoidance of, but a journey into a place that’s empty enough to fill with what God offers.  Essentially, it is allowing oneself to die to self and to our selfishness and rise again in Christ.

So, why is it so hard?  Maybe it is not merely because we have a hard time going without (although I think that is a large part of it.)  Maybe it is because we are expecting it to produce results that it is not meant to produce. Fasting is not meant to make us lose weight or make us decrease our sugar consumption or whatever else you’re trying to cut back on.  Fasting is not meant to be manipulated in that way. It is meant to clear rather than produce.  Think of fasting as response–a response to grief or sin, a response to graciousness or thankfulness, a response to a God who calls us out ourselves.  But perhaps fasting is also about return, a return to our own self before we developed all these needs, before we stored everything away, a return to the self that God created–with proper perspective and an awareness of what basic needs actually are. If you look up the physiology of fasting, you will find that a body can survive for 40 days or more without eating (Well, isn’t THAT interesting?)  In that time, depriving a body of food is not starvation but rather a burning of stored energy.

But I have to say that fasting has never been a huge part of my spiritual discipline.  Being the good Methodist that I am, I have always maintained that I can “add” to my Lenten practice and do the same thing as fasting.  I’m not real sure, though, that that is the case.  Maybe, even metaphorically, I am only storing in excess, building and building for the future, trying to take as much of God’s abundance as I can and stash it away.  Maybe in this 40 days of fasting, we are indeed called to let something go, to return to who we are before we stored it all away–the “leaner”, fuller, more focused self who knew that our basic daily needs would be met and that the abundance of God was really about allowing God to fill our needs and fill our lives and show us the way.  In other words, we are called to give up our self-imposed “fast track” for a new and freeing Fast Track, a journey toward God with God.  And once our bodies and our minds and our souls (and our houses!) are cleared of all the stored excess, we will be open to what we need–the very breath of God who breathed life into us in the beginning and each and every day–if there’s room.

Fasting makes me vulnerable and reminds me of my frailty.  It leads me to remember that if i am not fed I will die…Standing before God hungry, I suddenly know who I am.  I am one who is poor, called to be rich in a way that the world does not understand.  I am one who is empty, called to be filled with the fullness of God.  I am one who is hungry, called to taste all the goodness that can be mine in Christ.  (Macrina Wiederkehr)

We are more than halfway through our Lenten journey.  Many of you may already be fasting from something for Lent.  But why don’t you try giving up those things that are not blamed for your weight or your high blood sugar, but the things that get in the way of your self, that person that God created you to be.  Try giving up anger or resentment or greed or worry.  Try giving up the need to be in control.  You may come up with others.  Just try it through the week-end and if that works out, make it part of first your Lenten discipline and then your Life discipline.

Grace and Peace on this Lenten Journey,

Shelli

Sometimes the Wilderness Blooms

Crocus in the desertScripture Text: Isaiah 35: 1-2

 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.

 

Our walk in the wilderness has grown tiresome already. As far as we can look, there is desolation, drought, and despair. When is this going to end already? (Sorry…not even a third of the way there!)  But this passage is almost an interruption. We thought had it in our minds what the wilderness was. For us, the wilderness is a place to get through, to complete, to endure, a pathway to somewhere else. But maybe we’re not giving the wilderness the credit that it is due. After all, would God have created a complete wasteland with no redeeming qualities, no chance for hope? That’s not really God’s style. Maybe we’ve missed something. Maybe we’re trying so hard to overcome the wilderness and run through it, we’ve missed its beauty.

 

God does not wait until everything in order and the time is right to spring beauty into action. Every inch of creation, every wasteland we endure, has God’s fingerprints all over it. Every single piece is awash in God’s grace, even those whose beauty we cannot yet see either because our eyes have not adjusted to the light or because we have been clouded over with the old way of seeing. Can you see it? Or are we too busy rushing through it hoping that it will end? God’s voice is often out of place with what we see and know about the world. And yet, the desert wasteland is rejoicing in bloom. The passage says that the crocuses (maybe it’s croci) are blossoming abundantly, rejoicing with joy and singing. They abound with the glory of the Lord. We just have to give the wilderness a chance.

 

Maybe our problem is that we don’t trust first appearances. We want something that is tried and true, that perhaps has been around awhile and weathered all the tests. We want something that makes sense.  But this crocus pops up first. It is a first creation. And we’re not sure what to do. Is it a weed? Is it a flower? What do I do with it? It is God’s newness that at first glance seems to look a little out of place until it begins to gather its flock. (You know, I think that happened before for us. And, again, the world did not know quite what to do with something so out of place, something that so interrupted the way we think and the way we live.) So before we crucify any notion of beauty in the wilderness, let us stop and breathe and see it in bloom. Let us open our eyes and begin, even now while we’re wandering in the darkness, to see our resurrection (that’s right, not only THE Resurrection, but OUR resurrection) that is beginning to be.  Because, SOMETIMES even the wilderness blooms.

 

Our God is the One who comes to us in a burning bush, in an angel’s song, in a newborn child. Our God is the One who cannot be found locked in the church, not even in the sanctuary. Our God will be where God will be with no constraints, no predictability. Our God lives where our God lives, and destruction has no power and even death cannot stop the living. Our God will be born where God will be born, but there is no place to look for the One who comes to us. When God is ready God will come even to a godforsaken place like a stable in Bethlehem. Watch…for you know not when God comes. Watch, that you might be found whenever, wherever God comes. (Ann Weems, Kneeling in Bethlehem)

 

FOR TODAY: Stop and look for the blooms in the wilderness. What beauty do you see?

Fast Track

FastingScripture Text:  Deuteronomy 8:3

[God] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Lent is typically a season for fasting, for self-emptying oneself  of whatever overfills us.  And yet, fasting, is something that postively eludes most of us who live in this world of instant gratification and excessive consumption.  In fact, “going without” is completely anathema for us so fasting has more than likely been shoved to the back of the storage closet with all those other archaic things. After all, we want to believe in a God that blesses us with showers of abundance rather than a God that might on some days expect us to go without.  I’m afraid many of our somewhat fragile identities have a lot to do with what we have.  What if, instead, we were defined by what we could do without?  (That’s purely rhetorical…I have no answer!)

But fasting has for centuries and centuries been a part of just about every religious tradition.  The ancient Hebrews (and those of the Jewish tradition today) observe a special period of fasting as a sign of repentance on the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur.  Fasting was a sign of mourning or act of reparation for sins.  It was both a way to express repentance as well as prepare oneself inwardly for receiving the necessary strength and grace to complete a mission of faithful service in God’s name.  This was the reason that Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness–not to prove something but to prepare himself for a life of ministry.  Fasting is neither abstinence from nor avoidance of, but a journey into a place that’s empty enough to fill with what God offers.  Essentially, it is allowing oneself to die to self and to our selfishness and rise again in Christ.

So, why is it so hard?  Maybe it is not merely because we have a hard time going without (although I think that is a large part of it.)  Maybe it is because we are expecting it to produce results that it is not meant to produce. Fasting is not meant to make us lose weight or make us decrease our sugar consumption or whatever else you’re trying to cut back on.  Fasting is not meant to be manipulated in that way. It is meant to clear rather than produce.  Think of fasting as response–a response to grief or sin, a response to graciousness or thankfulness, a response to a God who calls us out ourselves.  But perhaps fasting is also about return, a return to our own self before we developed all these needs, before we stored everything away, a return to the self that God created–with proper perspective and an awareness of what basic needs actually are. If you look up the physiology of fasting, you will find that a body can survive for 40 days or more without eating (Well, isn’t THAT interesting?)  In that time, depriving a body of food is not starvation but rather a burning of stored energy.

But I have to say that fasting has never been a huge part of my spiritual discipline.  Being the good Methodist that I am, I have always maintained that I can “add” to my Lenten practice and do the same thing as fasting.  I’m not real sure, though, that that is the case.  (Although writing on this blog every day during Lent has become my Lenten discipline.)  Maybe, even metaphorically, I am only storing in excess, building and building for the future, trying to take as much of God’s abundance as I can and stash it away.  Maybe in this 40 days of fasting, we are indeed called to let something go, to return to who we are before we stored it all away–the “leaner”, fuller, more focused self who knew that our basic daily needs would be met and that the abundance of God was really about allowing God to fill our needs and fill our lives and show us the way.  In other words, we are called to give up our self-imposed “fast track” for a new and freeing Fast Track, a journey toward God with God.  And once our bodies and our minds and our souls (and our houses!) are cleared of all the stored excess, we will be open to what we need–the very breath of God who breathed life into us in the beginning and each and every day–if there’s room.

Fasting makes me vulnerable and reminds me of my frailty.  It leads me to remember that if i am not fed I will die…Standing before God hungry, I suddenly know who I am.  I am one who is poor, called to be rich in a way that the world does not understand.  I am one who is empty, called to be filled with the fullness of God.  I am one who is hungry, called to taste all the goodness that can be mine in Christ.  (Macrina Wiederkehr)

We are more than halfway through our Lenten journey.  Many of you may already be fasting from something for Lent.  But why don’t you try giving up those things that are not blamed for your weight or your high blood sugar, but the things that get in the way of your self, that person that God created you to be.  Try giving up anger or resentment or greed or worry.  Try giving up the need to be in control.  You may come up with others.  Just try it through the week-end and if that works out, make it part of first your Lenten discipline and then your Life discipline.

Grace and Peace on this Lenten Journey,

Shelli

How Much is Too Much?

anointing-jesus-feetLectionary Passage for Today: John 12: 1-11

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said,5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”9When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.10So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well,11since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

Perhaps no one noticed when Mary got up and left the room.  Perhaps no one noticed when she quietly returned carrying a jar full of oil.  But then they noticed…With drama befitting a king, she raised the jar, broke the seal and in one movement, poured the entire bottle onto Jesus’ feet.  Then as the oil slowly runs down his feet and begins to drip to the floor, she wipes his feet with her hair.  The whole house is filled with this overwhelming fragrance. And the empty jar is cast aside.

In our faith understanding, the Sacrament of Baptism is the beginning of our life as a Christian, a new life in Christ, the beginning of a journey toward oneness with God, toward the life of Christ.  The waters of Baptism remind us of God’s ever-Presence in our lives, of God’s claim on us, and of the great love that God has for us that was revealed in Christ.  It is sacramental because it is God’s love made visible for us.  Through this sacrament, we enter this journey with God.  And the Eucharist is, for us, an entering into that Presence of God.  It makes God’s Presence real.  We don’t understand it.  It’s a wonderful holy mystery.  But somewhere in that bread, somewhere in that juice, is the very real Presence of God.

But you can’t help but listen to the story of Mary’s anointing without hearing the same language—Mary took, poured, and wiped.  We will hear those same words this Thursday in the account of Jesus’ last meal:  Jesus took the bread, poured out the wine, and wiped the feet of the disciples, and through these common gestures and such common touch, Jesus shows us what true love is.  And as Mary takes, and pours, and wipes, she shows that same love toward Christ, and as the storm clouds begin to gather outside, this small crowded house in Bethany becomes a cathedral, the bottle that held the oil becomes a font, and this simple meal becomes a Eucharist. Through her touch, through her love, the ordinary becomes sacred.  Mary enters Jesus’ life and he becomes part of her.  Her life becomes an extravagant sacrament that shows Jesus’ love to the world.  And she, with Jesus, is on the journey to the Cross.  And the whole world is now forever filled with the fragrance of that perfume.

So, how much is too much?  Where did Mary cross the line?  Where was the point when someone could have reasonably said, “stop, that’s enough”?  Well, the truth is, I wish I could be more like her, wish I could give all of myself without holding back, wish I could break the jar and break the rules, and do something extravagant for love rather than for the right reason.  Because in this moment, Mary began walking with Jesus to the cross.  In this moment, she abandoned herself and poured everything out.  In that moment she became sacrament.  I don’t think it was too much.

In this holiest of weeks, become sacrament.  Do not count the cost.  Break the seal and pour yourself out.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Becoming Prodigal

"The Return of the Prodigal Son", Rembrandt, c.
“The Return of the Prodigal Son”, Rembrandt, c. 1667

This Week’s Lectionary Passage: Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable:…“There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

This is truly one of the world’s best-known and best-loved parables.  In fact, it shows up even in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition as well as others, so I would surmise that everyone has a hard time figuring this out.  The truth is, we humans like the image of one being welcomed home.  And even though those of us who try to do everything right, try to be who we’re supposed to be, are a little bothered by our identification with the older son, we like that image of the safety net that no matter how badly we mess our lives up, we can always begin again.

But when you delve a little deeper, there’s always more to the story.  (Oh, come now, you didn’t think that there would just be one level to a parable told by Jesus, did you?)  So, think about the fact that in this time and in this culture, there were expectations.  Land and resources were viewed as a gift to be handled responsibly.  They were ancestral lands and were meant to stay together, to stay within the family, rather than being split apart and divided.  So, this was a shocking parable, far from anything that its hearers could have imagined.  This father who gave away resources to a younger son that then leaves the family was going against all that the culture prescribed.  And a father that welcomed him back was just being duped.  And then to essentially take him back into the family and heap more abundance upon him was just unthinkable.  Good grief, when will this father ever learn?

We have come to equate the word “prodigal” with one who returns.  But if you look up the word, it means one who is recklessly spendthrift.  It also means yielding abundantly.  So how can those two definitions refer to the same word?  Because the notion of abundance, the notion of offering all that you have and all that you are, the notion of being this prodigal father is deemed irresponsible in our world’s view.  And yet, this image of one who offers all as abundance is the image of God that we get over and over again.  God does not dole out riches or rewards based on who we are and what we do; rather God offers everything, pouring as much of the Godself into our lives as we can possibly hold (and then more that we might spill it out into the world around us).  This is a God of abundance.  We don’t understand it.  We can’t control it.  We can’t even really accept it half the time.  We look for a catch.  After all, the world tells us that we cannot get something for nothing.

But “something for nothing” is exactly what God is offered.  God’s only desire is that we open ourselves to this prodigal abundance that God offers.  You’ve probably often heard a description of this parable ending with something like “head home to the open arms of God, the feast is waiting.”  What if the ending was something more like “just open yourselves to the abundance that is right there.  You don’t have to go anywhere.  You don’t have to do anything.  You just have to desire in the deepest part of your being the incredible blessings and abundance that God is already heaping into your life.”

Here is the God I want to believe in:  a Father who, from the beginning of Creation, has stretched out his arms in merciful blessing, never forcing himself on anyone, but always waiting; never letting his arms drop down in despair, but always hoping that his children will return so that he can speak words of love to them and let his tired arms rest on their shoulders.  His only desire is to bless. (Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 95-96)

So in this Lenten season, open yourself to this Prodigal God, this God of Abundance.  Think what it would mean to become a prodigal, spending lavishly the abundance that God offers and, then, becoming that very abundance yourself.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli