Friday, February 20, 2015

Before Jesus can show us who He is....

Thinking back to a few years ago. Lessons learned from an Ash Wednesday service I almost didn't attend.

It had been a busy day of job interviews and getting mama to a doctor's appointment. I'd almost talked myself out of going to an Ash Wednesday service at a church I'd been wanting to visit. But, reluctantly, I went. (Why does the Holy Spirit so often show up in "reluctant places"?)

As different speakers shared the Ash Wednesday readings, I began to realize it was the Holy Spirit who had pushed me past my excuses, out of my comfort zone, and onto that wooden pew to hear their pastor read the following passage:
"Be especially careful when you are trying to be good
so that you don't make a performance out of it.
It might be good theater,
but the God who made you won't be applauding.
When you do something for someone else,
don't call attention to yourself.
You've seen them in action, I'm sure—
'playactors' I call them—
treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage,
acting compassionate as long as someone is watching,
playing to the crowds.
They get applause, true, but that's all they get.
When you help someone out, 
don't think about how it looks.
Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively.
That is the way your God, 
who conceived you in love,
working behind the scenes, helps you out.
And when you come before God,
don't turn that into a theatrical production either.
All these people making a show out of their prayers,
hoping for stardom!
Do you think God sits in a box seat?
Here's what I want you to do:
Find a quiet, secluded place
so you won't be tempted to role-play before God.
Just be there 
as simply and honestly as you can manage.
The focus will shift from you to God,
and you will begin to sense his grace."
(Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, The Message)

This pastor then explained to us that, whenever we see the word "hypocrite" in our English Bibles, it's translated from the Greek word for "actor" (hupokrites). In Biblical times, actors wore masks, depending on the character they were playing. So, with that background, here are some words I wrote down from his sermon (thanks to the shorthand I still use from time to time):
"Most of us live our lives behind a mask.
We're afraid if people see behind our mask, they won't love us.
....Our masks do nothing to heal us--they only hide us.
....But, Jesus already sees and knows all the ugliness behind the mask,
and He says, "I love you child...this much"...
Then He stretches out His arms on a cross and dies.
....Lent is a time to let God help us take off our masks.
For us to offer our unmasked selves wholeheartedly to Him.
Taking off our masks is vulnerable and can make us feel completely naked.
....But He has not called us to be actors--
He has called us to be ambassadors. He has called us to be:
'a rebuilder of walls, a restorer of homes,
to raise up the foundations of many generations'
--for our children and our grandchildren and their children....
Could there be anything more beautiful than to live like that?"
Then, I stood in line for communion and to have those cross-shaped ashes painted on my brow. As the man who had just spoken those powerful, convicting, comforting words traced a cross on my forehead, he said quietly: "My sister, from dust you were formed, and to dust you shall return."

And, right there, my mind flashed back to a conversation with mom from earlier in the day. She couldn't remember something she wanted to tell me, and became frustrated and angry. She asked me, "Am I ever going to be normal again?"

And I began to cry.

NORMAL. What a loaded word.

I lost count of the times mama said to me, "I just always wanted to be normal." The sad irony is that her definition of 'normal' and the choices she made trying to achieve it brought even more chaos into her life.

But, standing there in front of that pastor, I realized that, like mama, NORMAL is one of the masks I wear. I too want to fit in and "just be like other people." And, just like mama, inevitably, that mask causes choices in my life that bring more chaos, damaging comparisons, confusion and sin.

The morning after that Ash Wednesday service--with mama's words and that pastor's words still echoing in my heart--I opened my favorite Lenten book, and the page fell open to words I wrote years ago:
"Before Jesus shows us who He is, He has to show us who we are."

And those words rattled my masks. They still do.
"The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
He does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
But from everlasting to everlasting
the LORD’s love is with those who fear him,
his righteousness with their children’s children—
with those who keep his covenant
and remember to obey his precepts."
(Psalm 103:8-18 NIV)

Thursday, February 19, 2015


Ashes...the stuff left after the fire.

How fitting that churches observing Ash Wednesday use ashes gathered from burning the previous year's Palm Sunday leaves. Once used to help sing "Hosanna!," these leaves become an ash-and-oil, cross-painting paste to remind us of life... death... the ongoing need for repentance... renewal... redemption.

Truth be told, the first Ash Wednesday service I attended was more a comedy of errors than the practice of something sacred. The ability to juggle the bulletin, Book of Common Prayer and hymnal, while learning how and when to pull out and push back the altar from beneath the pew in front of you was definitely out of this PresbyBaptiCostal's comfort zone.

Since then, I have learned the Ash Wednesday minister's focus--through song, sermon and prayer--is to call people to repentance. However, I was so distracted, trying to keep one step ahead of the next step, that I don't remember anything from his sermon.

But I do remember words he spoke as he painted the cross-shaped ashes on my forehead: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

The elderly couple sitting in front of me caused his words to ring and echo. This frail husband and wife “preached” me a crystal-clear sermon of just how quickly each of us "returns to dust," and of how we are called to live in the meantime.

When it was my turn to go down front to receive communion and have ashes painted on my forehead, I waited to let this couple step in front of me. All the way out the pew and up the aisle, the husband took halting, shuffled steps, which seemed possible only by the support of his wife's small arm around him.

I wondered how he would ever manage to kneel and get back up but, with her help, he did. I more heard than saw him take the bread and cup, because every breath was labored. They lingered the altar...together...for several moments.

As I watched their slow and painful walk back down the aisle and into their pew, I wondered what sort of devotion was required to get one’s self and one’s frail husband dressed and into the car…one’s self and one’s frail husband out of the car and into the church…one’s self and one’s frail husband up the aisle to painstakingly kneel at an altar to take the bread and cup and to get back up again.

Watching them--with newly painted crosses on their foreheads--made me cry...and I bowed my visiting head to hide tears that might cause those around me to wonder, "What's wrong with her?"

The church's Book of Common Prayer lay open in my lap, and I noticed tiny gray spots on its pages. I touched one, and it smudged. Then, I saw one of those "spots" drifting down and landing on the page, and realized these spots were ashes flaking off the cross on my forehead.

As I tried to brush them off without smudging the page, the Holy Spirit spoke deeply into my soul, “That’s where such a determined devotion begins… in the flaking off…. of selfish desires…. of "the old you.”

And, Jesus' cross...the forgiveness and power found the only place... the only way... such life-saving “flaking off” can ever begin and can ever endure.

So, in spite of how clumsy and vulnerable that "new" kind of worship felt, Jesus met me there and taught me a living parable.

In his book, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," C. S. Lewis paints a beautiful picture of this "flaking off." One of the characters, Eustace, through pride, self-pity and greed, has acted in ways that have caused him to be "turned into a dragon." Once the exciting newness of being a dragon wears off, Eustace is miserable and very sorry for how he has treated everyone. Listen to what happens:
"I looked up and saw the very last thing I expected: a huge lion coming toward me...It told me to follow...And I knew I had to do what it told me, so I got up and followed it. And it led me to...a garden. In the middle of it was a well, which was more like a very big round bath...and I thought, 
'If I could get in there and bathe, it would ease the pain in my leg' (from the jeweled bracelet that had become more like a shackle).
But the lion told me I must undress I started scratching, and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then, I scratched a little deeper,...and my whole skin started peeling off if I was a banana...In a minute or two, I just stepped out of it. I could see it laying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bath.
But, just as I was going to put my feet into the water, I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkly and scaly just as they had been before....So I scratched and tore again and (it) peeled off beautifully again and out I stepped...and went down to the well for my bath. And exactly the same thing happened again, and I thought, 'Oh, dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off?'...
Then the lion said, 'You will have to let me undress you.' I was afraid of his claws, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay down and let him do it.
The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the old stuff peel off....
Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off...And there I was as smooth and as soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me--I didn't like that very much for I was very tender now that I had no skin on--and he threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that, it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing, I found that all the pain had gone....
After a bit, the lion took me out and dressed new clothes....
And then, suddenly, I was back here...
Then Eustace asked, 'What do you think it was?'
And Edmund answered, 'I think you've seen Aslan.'....
Now, it would be nice and fairly nearly true, to say that from that time forth Eustace was a different boy. But, to be strictly accurate, he (only) began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But...the cure had begun."

"Before the Passover celebration,
Jesus knew his hour had come to leave this world
and return to his Father.
He had loved his disciples during his ministry on earth,
and now he loved them to the very end....
Jesus knew the Father had given him authority over everything
and that he had come from God and would return to God.
So he got up from the table, took off his robe,
wrapped a towel around his waist, and poured water into a basin.
Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet,
drying them with the towel he had around him.
When Jesus came to Simon Peter,
Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You don’t understand now what I am doing,
but someday you will.”
“No,” Peter protested, “you will never ever wash my feet!”
Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me.”
(John 13:1-8, NLT)

Oh, Christ, 
You faced the fire of the Cross.
And turned its ashes into 
Forgiveness, Redemption, Resurrection....
During these next 40 days 
May I see you like never before. 
Shine your Love
Your Light on those places
In me that need to flake off...
Even be scraped off...
by the Lion of Judah.
Help me to desire
what You long for me to desire.
40 days from now,
may I love You more than I do today.