Mardi Gras, Lent and The Hypocrisy Meter of the UMC

Today is Fat Tuesday when we have our last indulgent splurges before Lent begins tomorrow. Mardi Gras and masks go a long way back – a self-protective way to dive into devilment without being found out. We have to take our masks off during Lent or we have robbed the Gospel of its power to set us free. This is our season of confession and repentance, and for me and the UMC, all of us perhaps, it’s a journey. So, off with the masks and let’s get real!

We take a Lenten “journey.” We don’t say an Advent journey though Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, nor an Epiphany one even with the Magi traveling from afar. Easter and Pentecost seasons aren’t called “journeys,” either. But, Lent is definitely one, down from the heights of the Mount of Transfiguration to the pit of Gethsemane, Golgotha, and a stone-cold tomb. It was a journey that Jesus made, and dares us to make. It is a hard journey that begins with Ash Wednesday’s words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This is the journey that every human being will make from birth to death. The solace in this bleak journey is that God has taken it, too, in Jesus. We are not alone in our sorrows. Even Jesus’ baptism shows Christ’s solidarity with us. Though he was in no need of repentance, Jesus submitted to John’s baptism. His ministry began with obedience at the Jordan River and ended with obedience on the cross. How unlike my fickle allegiance. Thus, I need this Lenten journey every year, a journey of penitence and repentance. It’s hard to get the devil off your back if you won’t admit he’s there.

Hypocrisy is the age-old complaint about church goers. We say one thing and do another. At the end of a concert a patron noticed that two ushers standing near his seat were applauding harder than anybody else in the theatre. It was impressive to the man that these ushers who, no doubt, had seen many great performances would be so appreciative. His hope in humanity was dashed when he overheard what one usher said to the other, “Keep clapping. If we can get them to do another encore, we get overtime!”

Selfish gain is the essence of hypocrisy. There are lots of issues: personal, political, and ecclesiastical that are loaded with hypocritical bias and deception. I am one who follows the news both secular and sacred. Both are easily nuanced and have hidden agendas to me. I’ve tried network after network to find the untarnished secular news, and it seems an impossible task. On the church front I read United Methodist news outlets to glean the latest about our denomination’s upcoming special session of General Conference. Everyone wants to do God’s will, but use themselves to define what that means. It is so difficult, if not impossible, to separate bias from truth as we try to discern God’s will.

Everyone says that they want contextualization in deciding what’s right and wrong, but too much local contextualization interpreting God’s will leads to spiritual anarchy. In my mind, we’re either United Methodists or un-tied Methodists. You can’t have it both ways. We’re either connectional or we’re not. Jesus said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand!” Here’s my problem! I am tired of all the political, financial, and so-called spiritual arm-twisting to get people to vote to either loosen our stance on certain practices or make it more stringent.

I have seen people across the theological spectrum parse words, redefine words, and make up new words to try and push people into one camp or another. My word of warning is that we take off our blinders and don’t let the wool be pulled over our eyes, whomever is talking! I’ve heard progressives say that they’re moderate and they’re not; and I’ve heard traditionalists say that they are moderate and they’re not. I’ve heard moderates say a little bit of everything. Give me a break. Let’s at least be honest or there is no hope for a way forward either for the UMC or as individuals. On this Lenten journey we must be clear that we are serving the Lord and not our own personal agenda. Off with the masks!


A Lenten Test

 Who doesn’t like to take those IQ/knowledge tests on Facebook? This week we have a bigger more important test. We have to figure out what to do with a confluence of special days in the life of the church. Here are the three significant events to ponder in your worship planning: Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Valentine’s Day. You could add a few more secular ones if you’re celebrating the end of football season with Super Bowl 50’s completion, The South Carolina vs. Connecticut Women’s Basketball game, and maybe the biggest celebration of all for some of you, Mardi Gras on Shrove Tuesday! What a mixture to think about from a Christian perspective.

It seems to me that what we have is a grand opportunity to think about love and sacrifice. Ash Wednesday voices the somber realization: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Lent is a call to self-denial and reflection whose very name carries the tug of seasonal change. The word “Lent” comes from the Old English word lencten which meant “lengthen.” As the days march forward and lengthen with minute amounts of extra daylight, we should also take longer contemplative looks at our own lives.

Valentine’s Day celebrates a canonized priest who purportedly married young lovers when it had been outlawed by a Roman emperor who thought marriage made soldiers less dedicated and effective. In keeping with Lent’s call to carrying a cross, beginning with Ash Wednesday’s imposition of ashes, St. Valentine chose doing the right thing over doing things right. Before his execution he passed encouraging notes to the Christian faithful and signed them, “From your Valentine.”

Valentine’s causes me to wonder if the love notes we share last longer than the paper upon which they are written. Ash Wednesday makes me ponder when or if ever should I wipe the ashes from my brow. The whole season of Lent gives me pause to take a long look at my personal discipleship and discern where and how it may be lacking.

My sincere prayer is that people might see Jesus in me with or without an “X” of sorts to mark the spot! I don’t want to be like the young woman who gave a picture of herself to her boyfriend. On the reverse she exclaimed, “I’ll love you forever and always to the end of time!” with an added postscript, “P.S. If we ever break up, I want the picture back.” Fickle love is not even love, being infatuation more than anything else. No wonder our Ash Wednesday ashes are made of last year’s Palm Sunday palm fronds burned to a crisp. A wishy-washy crowd that welcomed Jesus with a loud “Hosanna!” quickly switched to a dastardly, “Crucify him!” by the end of Holy Week.

My personal prayer is that we who call ourselves Christ-followers will have a more faithful Lent this year. I hope that people will see Jesus in us, with or without a smudge on our heads. It’s even better, in my opinion, if the people around us see Jesus in us without the sackcloth and ashes of an outward show of repentance. May they see the Lord in our smiles, joys, commitments, and our doing the right things a´ la St. Valentine. More chocolate, not less. More smiles, not mournful somberness. More love!

I have a test to help remind you that you might be the only Jesus that the world will ever see. Look intently at the four dots in the middle of the image below for 30 seconds, then look away and stare for a few seconds. What do you see? Who will others see if they look at you this Lent?

Jesus and Four Dots

Ash Wednesday Reflection

Lent is a season that calls for action, real repentance and authentic forgiveness. I remember well the old ritual we used to use for Holy Communion. It was an emotional bummer in many ways. I’m not saying what we have today is glee and gladness but at least it’s Eucharistic and more focused on thanksgiving for God’s grace than us “bewailing our manifold sins and wickedness which we from time to time most grievously have committed in thought, word, and deed.” At least it went something like that. I remember leaving Holy Communion services feeling somewhat worse about my spiritual state than I did beforehand. Was that such a bad thing? It did make me straighten up and ponder the depths of my being.

Although I like the upbeat God-focused tenor of the current Communion service, I do need more time in repentance than a brief prayer and a few seconds of silent confession. If by nature Holy Communion is a sacrament that mysteriously conveys Christ’s Real Presence then it should be taken more seriously than a “Jesus Snack,” which I heard one children’s sermon presenter call it. I need to recapture the depth of repentance that is part and parcel of true communing with God. I also need to own my real sorrow over the sins that I’ve committed.

To be honest, many of my sins are directly against God but most reach God through the conduit of my actions against people. Haven’t you felt belittled, slighted, or otherwise demeaned by someone? Often when we have been treated in such a way, we get even. We curse back or at the very least feel resentment. We may even feel some self-righteous smugness that we have been unfairly assailed and claim a higher ground that is more sham humility than the real reconciliation. I cannot relish any thought of being better than the attacker if I don’t admit my own sins. Nobody’s perfect, yet the Scripture (Matthew 5:48) says “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In its context this Scripture is all about God being perfect in loving everyone, both good and bad.

That’s a tall order when someone has wronged us. To quote from my devotional this morning from The One Year at His Feet by Chris Tiegreen, “No, Jesus gives no attention to whether our feelings are legitimate (when we’re upset with someone). That is not the point. Our feelings may be entirely accurate. What Jesus calls for, instead, is absolutely counterintuitive to the human experience: a rejection of our resentments and bitterness, no matter how appropriate they are. We are to love even when love grates against our souls. While we hope for the downfall of our enemies, Jesus actually expects us to pray for blessings to rain down upon them.” Wow!

The action that Lent calls us to do is a call to love when we’ve been wronged and especially when the person never ever says they’re sorry or asks for forgiveness. It can be called “unilateral forgiveness.” Unilateral literally means “one-sided.” Jesus modeled a one-sided unilateral forgiveness. For instance there’s no evidence in the Gospels that anyone ever asked Jesus to forgive them but Jesus did it anyway! The handicapped guy whose buddies lowered him through the roof didn’t ask for forgiveness but Jesus said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The sinful woman with the alabaster jar of ointment didn’t ask for forgiveness, but Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your sins are forgiven.” On the cross, with no pleas from the soldiers and crowd for forgiveness, Jesus really modeled unilateral forgiveness when he said, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”

A valid call to action this Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent is to model Christ’s love and forgiveness. Unilateral forgiveness sets prisoners free and more often than not the prisoners are you and me. May we repent and be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect – in love!

Lenten App

I just noticed an article in our local newspaper about a new iPhone app for people who need to confess their sins. Sounds like an interesting way to add substance to our Lenten spiritual disciplines. The article asks, “Can your iPad or iPhone bring you closer to God?” It is aimed at Roman Catholics as the app is titled “Confession: A Roman Catholic App.” It costs $1.99. Cheap enough, but is it cheap grace?

My wife knows after 35 years of marriage to ask another question after I say a generic, “I’m sorry.” She asks, “Why are you sorry?” Now that really gets into a full-disclosure confession. It also makes sure that I think more than twice before I commit the same stupidity again. It isn’t $1.99 grace, and it isn’t cheap.

Lent is a season when we need to enter into Christ’s passion and suffering so that we, too, may rise on Easter. The word, “Lenten,” comes from the Old English word, “lencten,” “to lengthen.” Lenten season literally implies that we take a longer look at ourselves. As the days get longer so should our spiritual disciplines.

John Wesley organized the people of the 18th English Wesleyan Revival into classes and bands so that they might be accountable helpers for one another’s spiritual growth. He saw salvation not as a forensic matter to be proved in court by a time-specific body of evidence; i.e. “I was saved at 8 p.m. on March 11, 1971.” It included known events but wasn’t limited to one-time shots of salvation. Wesley emphasized the therapeutic nature of Christ’s redemptive work. His notion of salvation certainly was a process – a healing, therapeutic process that led through his via salutis (way of salvation) by stages  of prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace. It was dynamic (therapeutic) not static (forensic). It was never-ending, always a growing in grace and upheld by the means of grace!

All the more reason as the season of Lent starts that we commit ourselves to more than a $1.99 iPhone app. Find your prayer partners, friends, Sunday School & Bible Study colleagues, Clergy buds, and neighbors who are just simply intrigued by Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday; and ask “Would you like to help me have a better Lent this year?” I pray that we will be surprised and hope-filled by the amazing ways that we can grow in grace this Lent.

Ash Wednesday

As I ponder today as Ash Wednesday, I’m wondering how I will observe this Lenten Season. It may be easier this year than most to give up things for Lent. In these economic times it is an easy choice to give up tangible things, but what about the intangible attitudes and wrong thinking? As a District Superintendent it is easy to get out of the cyclic nature of the church year and yield to the Conference Year: Charge Conferences, Conference Meetings, Appointment-making, etc. I need today as a reminder to stay in touch with the Church Year and that God’s grace and spiritual nourishment are the only food for my soul. All the Conference stuff is secondary to my being in God’s will as an individual child of God. I need Lent!

Lenten season is a time set aside forty days before Easter, not counting Sundays, when we take an introspective look at our lives. The forty days are reminiscent of Jesus’ forty days of temptation in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. The word “Lent” comes from an older root word, “lencten.” Our word “lengthen” has this as its source. Just as the days are lengthening with the approaching spring, we should also lengthen the time spent on spiritual disciplines like worship, Sunday School, prayer, Bible Study, and service to others. We should do everything possible to keep our minds out of trouble and on God.
Someone asked quite pointedly, “Why is it that opportunity knocks only once, yet temptation bangs on the door constantly?” Have you ever noticed that the whisper of temptation can be heard farther than the loudest call to morality? Have you ever noticed that when we decide to do something wrong the means are so readily available? It is also a lot easier to point out the sins of others than our own.
An older priest and a novitiate were walking through the meadow when they came to a swollen creek. Beside the creek was a beautiful young maiden. The older priest offered to carry her on his back across the creek. The younger novice looked on with jealousy and desire. Miles later, long after they had left the maiden behind, the younger priest could not contain himself any longer. He asked the older priest why he had helped the young maiden. Didn’t he understand that what he had done looked improper at the very least? Hadn’t the older priest warned the younger man not to put himself in such situations? The older priest replied, “I left the maiden behind at the river bank, why are you carrying her now?”
What am I carrying that I don’t need to. Lent reminds me that Jesus is my All in All. Amen.