Ash Wednesday 2017

I both dig and dislike something Joan Chittister writes regarding Ash Wednesday.  I came across the following in her book The Liturgical Year:

We don’t have time to waste on nothingness.  We must repent of our dillydallying on the road to God.  We need to regret the time we’ve spent playing with dangerous distractions and empty diversions along the way.  We need to repent of our selfish excesses and our excursions into sin, our breaches of justice, our failures of honesty, our estrangement from God, our savoring of excess, our absorbing self-gratifications, our infantile addictions…”

Ouch.  The truth hurts.  Even if I’m being sorta honest with myself, it doesn’t take me long to become self aware of my own spiritual failure.  Though I enjoy the grandmotherly use of the word dillydallying in the above quote, I must confess that it’s a pretty good descriptor for how I sometimes handle my relationship with God.  Whenever I turn attention away from Jesus, I look to something else to fulfill my deepest need.  Diversions, excesses, sin, self-protection, self-gratification… all enticing at the time yet utterly disappointing and empty in their fulfillment.  Someone has said sin promises what it cannot deliver, and, based on my experience, that’s completely true.  Like Adam and Eve in the garden, I willfully do what I know is wrong, in the twisted belief that I will be made whole and get away with it, too.  God has not called us to this kind of imprisonment to self and sin.  He’s called us to life abundant.  That’s what we need, and that’s what today is about.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a church season called Lent.  In the 40 days leading up to Easter (not counting Sundays), we spend intentional time in reflection, repentance, and renewal.  Why 40 days?  Two reasons: First, after His baptism, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness fasting and praying.  Second, because our souls morph very very slowly.  40 days ensures the margin needed for deep spiritual transformation.  As of today we are 46 days from Resurrection Sunday, April 16th.  Just as Easter is always held on a Sunday, Ash Wednesday is always held on a Wednesday, the date of which can be discovered by counting back 46 days.  The extra 6 days are Sundays.  Even during the season of Lent, every Sunday is a celebration of Christ’s resurrection.

We know why it falls on Wednesday, but what’s up with the ashes?  Ashes symbolize the frailty and temporary nature of our humanity.  In the creation account of Genesis, we see God forming the first man, Adam, out of the dust of the earth.  God breathes life into Adam.  Adam had everything, yet he and his wife Eve sinned.  They made themselves unclean, unholy, disconnected from God.  We call this the fall of humanity.  In Genesis 3, we read that God said “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Sin brought physical death into our now broken world.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t often find myself thinking about the fact that I’m going to die someday.  It’s easy to forget that life is temporary, but we must reflect on this truth.  It is undeniable.  When you receive the ashes, you’ll hear this phrase: remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  

Ashes symbolize repentance, which is the turning away from sin and turning toward God.  In the Old Testament, people would mourn for things, including their own sinfulness, by ashing themselves and tearing their clothes.  The prophet Joel proclaims: rend your hearts, not your garments.  Thomas Merton, in writing about Ash Wednesday, said that if we tear our clothes, only the cold gets in, but if we tear our hearts open, the garbage of our hearts are released and the fresh breath of God can come in.

We have a Shop-Vac at our house that we use to clean up the big messes — the spilled potting soil, the pulverized cheerios, the catastrophic failure of a diaper.  The inside of our Shop-Vac canister has seen and held some of the worst “sins” of our home.  Every now and then I need to empty it.  Out come the cheerios, the dirt, the dust, the loose change, the Lego pieces… and the soul of the vacuum is made clean again.  Joan Chittister writes “Ash Wednesday confronts us with what we have become and prods us to better.”  Tearing my heart open in an act of repentance is the only way I can accept my condition, own who I am, acknowledge what I’ve done, and seek the emptying out of my own personal soul garbage and be filled with healing breath of God.

Our souls are stained with fear, which disrupts our faith, shrinks our capacity to love, and crushes our joy like an ant.

Our souls are smudged by indifference, which lets us off the hook when it comes to being fully attentive to God in us and around us.

Our souls are soiled by selfishness, which puts our wants, our needs, our desires at the center of our will and motivation.  At the center should be Christ, who commands us simply to love God and love each other.  In our lives, either Jesus is Lord or… He isn’t.  There is no middle ground.

Ash Wednesday is a time to repent, to acknowledge our sin and let God heal us, and to make and keep Him first in our lives.

Ashes represent the renewal we get through Christ.  When we take the imposition of the ashes on our forehead, it is in the shape of a cross.  This is very very very on purpose.  The cruciform (cross shape) reminds us that we are forgiven, redeemed, and made new in Christ Jesus.  It was His work on the cross that sets us free from sin and death. When we put our faith in Christ, we put our faith in the One who took on our earthly, ashen nature, lived a sinless life, and was yet crucified on the cross.  This is the first and foremost work of renewal — to be born again, breathed into again, clean and holy.  And by His resurrection from the dead, we too become fully alive in Him forever.  We are instantly transformed.

The ongoing renewal is now in how we live as a result.  In Matthew 6, Jesus expects us to give to the needy.  He anticipates that we’ll be committed to regular prayer.  And He instructs us quite clearly on fasting — not if but when.  Every practice brings the blessing of renewal and the reward of the Father.

Are we indifferent to the needs of others?  Are we indifferent to our need for God through prayer and submission?  Are we indulgent to the point where we count on stuff, like food or technology or business, to keep us happy?

Ash Wednesday is the day for me and you to say “That’s it!  I’m coming clean!  I know I’m not living the life of freedom and joy Christ died to give me, and that’s ridiculous.  God, help me!”

Seems like a pretty good prayer, and a great way to start counting the time to Easter Sunday, when we celebrate the most important day in the life of the church and in the life of a believer.  Where would we be without the resurrected Christ?  Lost, afraid, incomplete, broken.  Ash Wednesday reminds us not only of what we are, but of who we are in Christ.  This isn’t merely about our sin, it’s about God’s mercy shown in Christ.

What are we?  We are dust.

Who is God?  Our maker and Father, whom we’ve turned away from.  We turn back.

What has God done?  Set us free in Christ and filled us with the Spirit.


Fall Back (to Church) Sunday is THIS SUNDAY Nov 6!

I officially declare (as far as my meager role will allow) the following:

**November 6, 2016 shall be National Fall Back (to Church) Sunday!**

Here’s what happens: We get connected. We get enriched. We get spiritually formed. Then we get… busy.

We get busier. Next thing ya know, it’s been 3…4…7 weeks since Sunday worship together. Missed connection with God and others. Missed times of corporate prayer. Missed moments of encouragement as people around you seek the same thing as you.

Be there every Sunday of the year? Of course not!

Even the pastor pulls a planned no-show during vacations and big family events. But most Sundays? AMAP (As Many As Possible)? That seems about right.

Dish Network has a “guilt loop” that they used to broadcast only to people who were using unauthorized equipment.  By intercepting the Satellite signals with unregistered equipment, the whole billing process was (ahem) eliminated. A man would show up on screen and say “ya know… this is wrong… ya know…?”  Please don’t hear me like that. I’m not here to guilt anybody. That’s the complete opposite of the gospel, btw.

But… I am here as a pastor and a friend.

Truth: we need worship gatherings.

Even if we don’t think you do… we do. We have been programmed for spirituality, wired for community, and updated with the New Covenant. Nothing replaces worship together. To remember the story of God’s rescue. To lift up the name of Jesus with your brothers and sisters. To listen to the Holy Spirit together, like they did in Acts and throughout Church history.

Are you a Mountain Bike Sunday kinda person?  Is your favorite Hymn #3 — as in 3 under par?  Do you love the soft, luxurious preaching at Bedside Baptist? I get it. You don’t need to be in a church to connect with God. That’s true. But Father, Son and Spirit have revealed themselves as a community.  The scripture forms Christians within the context of community.  Think of it this way: even if you don’t need it (you do, but let’s just say you don’t), maybe someone else needs you. Maybe you’re the one who will make eye contact with someone in the back row this Sunday. You might even say “Hello”, which for you is a forgettable five seconds but for them is a reason to go on. Again, no guilt. Just something to think about. Maybe it’s not just about your personal experience.

Why not use this coming Sunday, November 6, as a time to reset clocks and reset priority, too?

Why not use the extra hour as a buffer for your family to readjust?  Why not make the most of a new month, where things start fresh and new, including the practice of making Sunday Worship a priority of our spiritual formation?   Please hear me: the challenge comes from caring, not from guilt.  This isn’t about numbers.  It’s a shepherd-y thing that we’re called to do.

Spring Belongs to Easter

Yesterday, amid sunny skies and 57 degrees, Zac asked if we could set up the little blue pool in our backyard.  I seriously considered it for about it for a minute but decided it would be a lot of water for a three second experience that would ultimately make me out to be the crazy one.

We’ve had a balmy Michigan winter compared to the last few, but it was still winter and the kids were still stuck inside for most of it. Though the calendar tells us Spring is here, the weather is still in identity crisis mode, frosting our car windows in the morning but demanding those same windows be rolled down in the afternoon. This is the time of year when precipitation waits until the very last second before deciding to land as either rain or snow or ice. Transitions are usually a bit awkward, but don’t worry.  History has taught us that Old Man Winter has a succession plan, and it’s to relinquish control to brand new Spring.  Spring is new at this, so they’ll be working in tandem for a few weeks.  “Please stand by,” says Old Man Winter.  “Spring and I should have this figured out by May.”  

Spring belongs to Easter because the change in weather helps our bodies align with our spirits in sensing a new season.  Like Christmas, Easter is one of those holidays with a somewhat arbitrary placement on the Gregorian calendar, though most historians feel more confident about the Resurrection happening around March/April than they do Christmas in December.  Easter moves around the calendar because of a rather involved formula of new moons, vernal equinoxes, phase cancellation and convection ovens.  Of course, all of this becomes more complex in an election year. Nevertheless, the Resurrection belongs to the season of early Spring.  Consider the unavoidable symbolism: cold and death release their grip, warmth and life swoop in.  New sprouts grow as snowbirds find their way back home.  The days are longer and filled with greater exuberance.  We live through Winter, but we become fully alive in the Spring.  The Resurrection, spiritually speaking, makes us fully alive after waiting through the long winter of bitter cold.  Christians are Easter people, oriented toward the season of Spring because of the reminder that we are made alive in Christ.  Our souls bloom and breathe again.  Finally.

No wonder Zac wants to set up the pool.


Lent: Some Notes on Fasting

I preached a sermon (tried to, at least) on Fasting yesterday at pfmchurch.  Using Scot McKnight’s excellent book Fasting as a guide, I pointed out four kinds of fasting:

Water Fast: That’s where you drink water but eat no food.

Juice Fast: That’s where you replace water with juice.  Still no food, though.

Partial Fast: i.e. the Daniel Fast — cutting out certain foods (like chocolate, caffeine, red meat) but still eating other foods. See abstaining, below.

Total Fast: No food, no water. Probably not a good place to start.  Best to check with the Doc.

Fasting is not eating, whereas, say, cutting out Facebook or giving up on sweets is called abstaining.  McKnight suggests – and I think I agree – that biblical examples of fasting are simply predetermined times of not eating any food, usually as a response to something that causes mourning.  Fasting helps our body be in sync with our soul/spirit.  How?  Most of us have experienced events in our lives that have totally killed our appetites.  The loss of a loved one, sadness, stress at work — all of these are times where eating food just seems out of place.   So it can and should be in our spiritual lives.  Sin is so destructive… God’s guidance is the only way to know what to do next… divine healing is the only viable option… that it seems proper to say “I’m in mourning.  I can’t eat at a time like this.”

I’ll give you a real life example.  Emily and I were hungry and on our way to lunch when all the sudden the ol’ Red and Blue lights started a’flashin.  “Wow,” I exclaimed, as I signaled to get off the road and into the parking lot.  “I’m being pulled over.  I wonder why?”  Turns out my plates didn’t match up with the car we were driving, which makes sense since we just transferred them to my new wheels on Friday afternoon.  I thanked the Officer for the work he does and we went on our merry way to lunch.  As you can imagine, when I was in the process of getting pulled over, the last thing on my mind was Hummus.  My body was in sync with what was happening.  In a way, that’s what fasting — and other physical practices of Spiritual Formation — does.  By the way, I basically just confessed that I’m not fasting today.

When we realize the gravity of sin, the dependence on God that we have (or need to realize), and the hurt in the world that needs God’s healing, we are wise to do something tangible like, say, not eat for a predetermined time.  We don’t fast to get God to do something.  That’s called manipulation and it doesn’t work, anyway.  Why fast?  Because it’s a fitting response to what God is already trying to stir in our lives.  Besides, when we put our appetites in check, something mystical happens.  Our spiritual senses become heightened.  Our thinking changes.  Our other appetites are chilled out.  It’s… it’s like nothing else.  Whether or not God does what we’re hoping for during a fast doesn’t matter nearly as much as the amount of spiritual formation that happens when we say, with our lives as testimony, that the food we need isn’t physical… it’s spiritual, and it only comes from Him.






Advent Wait, Wait…

I like Advent because it’s rude.

Advent rudely pushes back against our consumer culture.  Advent pulls the reigns back and says “not so fast, pal.”  I need something to slow me down.  Advent is rude enough to do just that, like a peaceful bossypants.

The Christmas we’re surrounded by go, go, go.

The Advent we’re entering into says wait, wait, wait… because the Christmas we’re hoping to engage is one of peace, joy, restoration, hope, and celebration.  I need Advent.  You need Advent.  We need to ponder, like Mary, what it means for the promised Messiah to be born in us today.  We need to tiptoe in, like the Shepherds, to adore the newborn King.  We need to bring our gifts, like the Magi, because a King deserves nothing less.  But this requires the soul to be running at a speed that is counter to the frantic Christmas pace around us.

How does one “reclaim” Christmas?  By living in Advent space.  On purpose.  By submitting to the directive to wait.  By simply choosing one thing over another.

You’d think this would be easy for a pastor.  It’s not.  I was talking with some of our church staff yesterday about how Christmas/Advent is a collection of tasks and deadlines, and not a celebration.  But I’m not off the hook.  I have to choose wait, wait, wait over go, go, go.  I choose it now, especially as we work our way toward the last Sunday of Advent.  I want Christmas Eve to be a relief, a breaking of the tension that naturally builds as we delay Christmas until it’s actually Christmas.

It’s still Advent.  Wait.

Their Part in Pentecost

Today is Pentecost Sunday.  Pentecost has been around for a long time – even longer than the New Testament.  Back in the Ol’ Testament days, worshippers would bring their offering of bread to the Temple in Jerusalem as a way of saying thanks to God.  Thanks for the bread which sustains us physically and thanks for your Word which sustains us spiritually.  All God’s people would hightail it for Jerusalem for this annual feast on the 50th day (Pente = 50) following the Passover.

The truth is that Pentecost was not new.  But God by His Spirit made it astonishingly new in a completely unexpected way. 

Jesus told His followers to wait in Jerusalem for the gift of the Holy Spirit.  In Acts 2:1, we read that they were gathered in one place on the day of Pentecost.  Pretty normal, run-o-the-mill Jewish feast.  But then God does the unexpected in Acts 2:2, which is where the wind, the fire, the tongues, and the power all show up.  The world is forever changed.  3,000 people come to Jesus that day, and a new global and eternal movement is started.  We call it the Church.

But let’s not complicate the process.  Their part in Pentecost was simply to wait, which is exactly what those 120 believers did.

They waited because of a person — Jesus.

They waited because of an event — His life, death, and resurrection.

They waited out of obedience — simply because Jesus told them to wait.

United as one, in one space, in one Name, because of One God who is yet Three.

Mind boggling.  But not complicated.  I wait.  You wait.  We wait for the Holy Spirit.  Poured out once and for all on the church, we don’t need to hang tight until Pentecost 2.0.  Rather, we need to say “purify me and fill me yet more.”  That’s the prayer of the church.  It’s a prayer of waiting.  And that’s our part in Pentecost.

May every day be a day where the Holy Spirit has even greater influence in our lives.  May we yield to the cleansing fire and life-giving wind of the Spirit.  May we put our limitations aside and eagerly await the blessed Trinity to infuse our lives.

Spiritual transformation has many enemies.  People accused these 120 Spirit-filled people of being drunk.  Cynicism is the enemy of transformation in our world and even in the church.  Or maybe mediocrity.  Or pride.  Or spiritual disengagement.  You name it; the Spirit knows it.  Let Him tell you (not me).

Do your part today as you seek the Holy Spirit.  Wait.

Refuge is Quick // Trust Takes Time

[Ps 62:6-8]


It’s raining outside and I’m getting soaked.  “Come in or you’ll catch a cold!” and I do (come in, not catch a cold).  Water evaporates as I switch from wetting to drying.  I’m not getting rained on anymore, but I’m not instantly dry, either.  Refuge is quick but drying off takes time.


We took our kids to a new house to be babysat.  We trusted these people without a doubt and were instantly on our way to our hot date.   The kids were a bit scared as they slowly wandered into the place, finally feeling safe by the time we picked them up.  They cried when we left them; they cried because we were taking them home!

I think about how refuge is quick but trust takes time when I read Psalm 62:6-8.  Whenever a writer quotes a scripture verse, I usually skip over it and jump to the point.  Terrible, right?  You might do it, too.  So, instead of a nice italicized inline textblock for you to skip, let’s break this down.  I’m trying to make a point, here, and you need to be familiar with the verse.  When the Psalmist says that God is his rock and salvation, he’s describing refuge.  He found a good place to stand with no complaint because, well, it beats the alternative!  You would think that this would lead to instant and total trust in God, but it doesn’t.  Ps 62 goes on, saying that we need to trust in him at all times, you people! (I love that).  Trust is the willingness to pour out your hearts to God (verse 8b) because God is our refuge.

Refuge meets the need caused by an impending danger — sin — and is instant.

Trust meets the need caused by our busted up hearts — sin — and takes time.

Can I trust God with everything?  I mean, I’m glad to be safe and all, but can He really handle xyz?  That doubt, expressed by words or by inactivity, is what messes me up.  Refuge is instant, but trusting God all the way is difficult.

Remember when Grandma was looking for something in her purse?  After a minute of unsuccessful archeological dig, she’d exhale loudly and just dump the contents of her purse out on the kitchen table until she found that rogue tic tac?  That’s what it should look like as we pour out our hearts before the Lord.  That kind of vulnerability takes time, even though we’re safe and sound in His fortress of salvation through Christ.

Standing up is much easier than pouring out.  Yes?  Pour out anyway.  What’s to worry about?  You’re safe.

Be grateful for salvation but listen to the Psalm: trust in Him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.