Friday, February 16, 2018

When Ashes and Love Mingle

This year, Ash Wednesday on the liturgical calendar coincided with Valentine’s Day on the secular calendar.  On the surface of things, the two days don't seem like they should go together.  But the rare convergence of chronos and kairos time that caused hearts and ashes to mingle this year provides an opportunity to contemplate the connection between these two observances a bit more.   I think, as we do, we discover that both observances celebrate love, each in a very different way.

When Ashes and Love Mingle
Valentine's Day is an in-your-face celebration of romantic love (eros), as we shower the one we love with gifts to prove to them just how much we love him or her.  It's sort of hard to miss because our culture clobbers us over the head with cards, flowers, chocolates, and all matter of other creative gifts for February 14.  In fact, the holiday is difficult for people who don't have that "special someone" in their life.   I remember when I was single, it wasn't my favorite day of the year.  When you were young, it was okay for your mom to give you Valentine's Cards; when one gets older, that's a bit more awkward.  When you were in elementary school they typically forced you to give a card to everyone in class, so you were sure to get some cards.  But at a certain age, the "artificial sources" of cards tend to dry up and you are on your own to find elusive eros.  I found myself on the outside looking in for many years until I met my wife. (Thank you e-Harmony!)   I must say I'm grateful I no longer have to navigate the world of dating. 

The kind of love displayed on Ash Wednesday isn't as obvious to the world—but I would argue it’s more real.   People see a bunch of people walking around with ashes on their forehead at the grocery store, or wherever, and wonder what the heck it means. Sometimes they see what the person is doing while they have the ashes imposed, and sense that something doesn't add up.  In general, the Ash Wednesday services we hold don't tend to draw near the attendance as the Easter Sunday services.  The focus of Ash Wednesday tends to be on our human mortality, and some find it a bit depressing and dark to think about death of themselves and those they love. I assure you that Hallmark doesn't do booming business selling cards that say: "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

As we look to understand the type of love shown on Ash Wednesday, remember that Jesus once said to his disciples, "Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one's life for one's friend." In the same discourse, Jesus explains that he does not view his disciples as servants, but as friends—see John 15:12-17.  The broader context for this discussion is the Upper Room, where just hours earlier, Jesus showed his friends what he is now telling them as he kneeled and washed the feet of each disciple—even Judas's, whom he knows is about to betray him to the authorities—see John 13.  And not long after this, Jesus will go on to make the ultimate sacrifice for his friends in that room—and for all that have ever called, or will ever call, him friend.

Remember that you are dust.. and to dust you shall return.
The common practice on Ash Wednesday is to symbolically "put to death" or "reduce to ashes" something that we feel stands between us and a deeper walk with God.   We could say that the ashes symbolize purging away any love interest that gets in the way of our first love: God.  In essence, what Christians do on Ash Wednesday is to recommit to loving God above all else—even if it requires sacrificing something we cherish to do it.  Over time our love might grow lukewarm, and Lent is a season to light the fire of our first love again.  We're talking about more than giving up chocolate for 40 days here.  This is supposed to something that truly costs us to go without.  It's a sacrifice we make because we love Someone.

Although the liturgical season of Lent lasts for just six weeks prior to Easter, for followers of Jesus, Lent should be more than just a season—it's should be a lifestyle.  

So, whereas Valentine's Day celebrates eros, we can say that Ash Wednesday celebrates agape, the kind of love that is willing to die for a friend, if that's what it takes.  On Ash Wednesday Christians contemplate our own mortality, and the fact that every person we love will eventually die.  But we don't do it to depress ourselves but rather because, somehow, through letting a part of ourselves die, we are drawn closer to the heart of God.  We worship a God that, crazy as it seems at times, allowed Himself to die.   Jesus came to us as God in the flesh.   He was the image of God (Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3) whose nature is love (1 John 4:8), and he modeled that love for the world in every way, up to and including the way he died.   The Cross is the ultimate example of God's sacrificial love—of letting nothing stand in the way of Jesus's friends receiving God's love.  It turned out to be a love so strong that apparently even death could not stand against it—but that's getting ahead of the story.  We must first face the darkness to appreciate the light.  

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Dreaming God's Dream, Part III: Reclaiming the Dream—Baptismal Renewal

Did you know that God was a passionate dreamer too?  Here’s a good synopsis of God’s dream:

The aim of God in human history is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons with God himself at the very center of the community as its prime Sustainer and most glorious Inhabitant—see Ephesians 2:19-22; 3:10.[1]

While God’s dream of walking with humanity dates all the way back to the creation stories of Genesis 1–2, and continues all the way to the new heaven and new Earth described in Revelation 21, the incarnation marks a specific manifestation that dream.  God has always wanted to be with God’s people.  Previous attempts have fallen short of what God dreamed of achieving, so God takes a dramatic step.  Through the birth of Jesus, God literally becomes one of us. God, the Author, becomes part of the Story. And God does so in a most unexpected way: as a helpless baby born in a manger.   The Creator experiences what it is like to be one of the created and is fully dependent on humans for his upbringing.  Through this experience, God gains full solidarity with humanity—and with all of creation. 

Jesus continues the dream of his Father.  He dreamed of a world where God was King, where what God desires becomes reality.  He dreamed of a world “put to rights”, one where original glory of creation is restored.  Such a world didn’t exist when Jesus lived, but he had a vision of what could be that motivated everything he said and did while he was alive.  Jesus inspired others to dream with him; they followed him and shared his dream with others as they went.  Eventually God’s vision came into conflict with Rome’s vision of reality.  After all, if God is King, then that means Caesar isn’t.  And in that conflict, there was never much doubt who would "win".  Ultimately Jesus was willing to die on a cross so that God’s dream might live on.

Baptism became an outward symbol for someone to publicly acknowledge that they too dreamed God’s dream.  John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, and down through the centuries, those who follow Jesus have been baptized.       

The world doesn't like dreamers all that much; they inconvenience and threaten the comfortable status quo.  (Rulers and authorities tend to rely on that status quo remaining in place.)  Just as they did with Barnum and King, the world will challenge and question dreamers every chance they get.  And if you are audacious enough to claim you dream God's dream, the world will really rage against you, calling you names and doing whatever it takes to silence you.  (Ask any Prophet about that one—including Jesus himself.) 

We remember our baptism, and we are thankful.
We reaffirm God's dream at work within us.
Perhaps this is why, every year, typically during the second week of January, many Christians reaffirm our dream with a liturgy of baptismal renewal.   It is an acknowledgment that while we need not be re-baptized again each year, we do need frequent renewal to sustain our continuing—sometimes grueling—spiritual and physical journey.  We are invited to come to the fountain, and dip our thirsty selves in its refreshing waters, and remind ourselves of the dream that is already alive in us: the dream of God’s Kingdom coming on Earth as it is in heaven.  

So we come full-circle, returning to where this series of posts began.  I came up with a modified lyric to "A Million Dreams" that I thought summarizes well what we reaffirm or reclaim in baptismal renewal.  Maybe we could call it our Dreamer's Declaration...

They can say, they can say that we are crazy.
They can say, they can say we’ve lost our mind.
We don’t care, we don’t care if they say we're crazy.
Come and pray for a world we help design.

Cause every night and every day.
The Word of God shows us the Way.
The dream of God is keeping us awake.

We think of how this world will be.
When the vision becomes reality.
A million prayers is what its gonna take.
Each dreaming dreams of the world God’s gonna make.

[1] From the Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Dream God's Dream, Part II: Sustaining the Dream—Doing the Work of Christmas

The thing about dreams is that they are fleeting—and unpredictable.  We wake up in the morning and wonder if that really happened—and if so, what does it mean?  Consider the case of Jacob’s dream at Bethel—see Genesis 28:10-22. If you recall the story, Jacob arrived at Bethel destitute, trying to escape his brother Esau’s wrath after Jacob essentially tricked him into giving away his birthright.  He has fled the wilderness with literally just the clothes on his back.  The text says that he had only a stone for a pillow.  That couldn’t have been the best conditions for REM sleep. Yet, during that sleepless night, Jacob has an ecstatic vision of angels ascending and descending a “ladder” from heaven, and experiences an epiphany that God had been with him all along—he just hadn’t realized it.  
Jacob at Bethel—Genesis 28:10-22

But despite his powerful vison, the next morning when Jacob wakes up, although he may have been changed by what happened that night, the world around him hasn’t changed appreciably.  And, as if to add insult to injury, his body now aches from sleeping on the cold ground all night. 

It has occurred to me that the Christmas and Advent season we’ve just finished can be a bit like Jacob’s dream at Bethel: a beautiful, but all too brief vision of a world that does not yet exist in full.  For about a month, we are flooded with images from Scripture of God’s realm connecting with our own, of things becoming on Earth like they already are in heaven.  The liturgy chosen during this season is meant to remind us not only that Christ came and was born in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago, but that Christ is also here in our world today, and that Christ will come again in the future to rule as King.  It’s like a dream come true!

We perpetuate the Christmas dream in our homes and churches as we adorn them with beautiful lights and decorations in December to brighten the darkest days of the year. But sooner or later, it is time to “wake up” and “get back to normalcy”. This week, Laurie and I have been taking down our Christmas decorations. Most of them are now put away in bins in the basement, where the cat will sleep upon them until the season comes ‘round again. Once the tree is gone, there is always a stark empty space where it has stood for nearly a month—and needles appearing until August to remind us.  The lights that twinkled so beautifully are now gone. Coming downstairs to the family room on the first few days after the decorations are removed is a harsh reentry to reality.  

As the literal glow of Christmas fades, we might experience solidarity with Jacob, as he woke up after having such a vivid dream to greet the same bleak landslcape that existed when he went to sleep the night before.  Jacob put up a stone altar in that place and worshipped God. How will we respond?

In his poem, “Now the Work of Christmas Begins”, African-American theologian, educator, and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman, beautifully proposes an answer.  He says:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

Inevitably, we come to that moment when we wake up and realize the Christmas season is over for another year.  With all the lights and adornment stripped away, cold, harsh reality sets in: as warm and wonderful as the past month has been for us, the world around us hasn’t changed a great deal since late November.  While Christmas doesn’t change the world, hopefully it changes us… and then we go forth to change the world.  External decorations fade but what is in our heart is eternal.  The dream of God (which Jesus often called the Kingdom of God) is within us, and our job is to do the “work of Christmas” in the places we go and the spaces we dwell, and to “infect” others we meet with our dream—as Barnum did with his wife Charity.  If we do that we will most certainly keep the Christmas dream alive throughout the year—and for the rest of our lives.

Next:  Reclaiming the Dream—Baptismal Renewal