Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lent: Spring Cleaning for the Soul

Just a warning note...this is a long post. Happy Spring Cleaning!

I recently spoke on Exodus 20:1-17, the Ten Commandments. It was the Lectionary text for the third week of Lent. We’re over half way through Lent, a season of reflection and repentance.

I have a confession to make. I’m a sinner.

As I look at the Ten Commandments, I wonder, how many of us have never broken one of these commandments? The Ten Commandments are a perfect Scriptural selection for the Lectionary text, because they act as a mirror for us as we engage in that self-examination. Our word for this season – Lent – comes from the Old English word, which can be translated as “spring” or “springtime.

What great imagery. Not only does it remind us of the season before Easter – Spring. But “spring” also functions as a metaphor. When we enter into Lent --- viewing it as an opportunity for some spiritual spring cleaning, our souls can be refreshed --- and we can experience new growth.

Lent is a time to be particularly aware of what is planted within us. How’s your self-examination and reflection going? What is the good seed that needs tending? What are the weeds that will choke the good seed, if left untended? We all have weeds of sin in our lives. The Apostle Paul makes that very plain in his letter to the Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God.”

When we hear the Ten Commandments, we need to hear them with the understanding Jesus gives us from Matthew 5:21, “You have heard it said to the people long ago, “Do not murder and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother (or sister) will be subject to judgment.”

And then a few verses later, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery. But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Those are hard words.

When we understand the expanded scope of sin --- according to Jesus --- we can see how far our lives fall short --- of Christ-likeness.

I recently spent time with my family in Kansas. I went back home to celebrate my Mother’s 84th birthday. My three sisters and two of my three brothers and my sister-in-laws were there. We were reminiscing about old times and somehow the conversation turned to things we’d done in our youth --- some things our mother didn’t know.

It tweaked a long, forgotten memory in me --- that had been buried for years. When I was a pre-teen, my family had taken a trip to New Orleans as our Christmas present. We tried different ethnic foods and visited a lot of historical places in New Orleans. In fact, we stayed in a historical hotel, The Roosevelt. Back then in the early 60’s, The Roosevelt was known as the “pride of the south”. It was a grand hotel.

For reasons unknown, I took some silverware from the hotel’s dining room. Maybe I wanted a souvenir --- the silverware had the hotel’s name on it. I honestly don’t know what I was thinking. There’s no excuse for what I did. I certainly wasn’t respecting someone else’s property. I wasn’t keeping the eighth commandment.

For over forty years, the silverware had been wrapped up and buried in the bottom drawer of my hope chest and forgotten --- until that conversation with my family. Needless to say, when I told my family, they were shocked.

When I returned from my trip I checked the drawer and sure enough, there was the evidence of my sin...wrapped up in a napkin.

That was bad enough --- but it gets worse. You see, after I returned, I told someone the story and as I did I made the comment that it was so out of character for me. I was the sensitive, good kid of the family!

That’s the problem. I was thinking, “I was a good kid.” That’s like saying now, “I’m a good person.” Have you ever heard that? “I’m a good person. I’m kind to people and animals. I give money to charity and do volunteer work.”

I’ve heard that from non-Christians who think they’re fine without God. It’s also something Christians say --- or think --- at times. That’s a problem.

When we start to think, “I’m a good person”, we’re in danger of diminishing the value of God’s Grace in our lives. Our sense of goodness can distort our relationships. We might start to think ‘I’m right’ and our listening to others lessens. Yet, it’s so easy to think, “I’m a good person.”

Scripture says otherwise. The Ten Commandments show me the truth. The Ten Commandments cut through my deception that I’m a good person. They expose my behavior for what it is --- sin. It’s so easy to make excuses for our sin.

We can read in Genesis where Adam blames the woman for his sin. The woman blames the serpent. Turn to Exodus and we can read about Aaron’s excuse. Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai after receiving the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments and what does he find? Aaron, who has been left in charge, has created an idol - a golden calf. What does Aaron say to Moses? “Don’t be angry with me...you know how prone these people are to evil.”

Isn’t it interesting, how we often want to put the blame on someone else? But Lent can be a correction for that tendency. We’re invited to look at what might be hidden in the bottom drawers of our hearts and lives.

The Ten Commandments are not just rules to follow. Most of all - they are a snapshot of who God is. And they provide a structure for our lives and relationships: to God, others and ourselves.

We don’t know for sure, but it is believed that the second tablet contained the fifth through tenth commandments. These deal with who we are called to be in our relationships with one another.
We are called to live respectfully, because all of us are created in the image of God. We’re not to take or plot to take what is not ours to take: whether a life, another’s possession, another’s spouse, or another’s reputation.

The first tablet contains the first four commandments. They are God-centered. They tell us about this God we are called to follow. Our God is the one who brings freedom. God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. God reaches out to us through Jesus, to bring us freedom from sin and the wages of sin - eternal death.

God is a jealous, possessive God who loves deeply. God judges our desire to be in faithful and respectful relationships. God is also an active God...involved in history --- involved in our lives.
I’m sure you remember what Jesus said when asked about which the Greatest Commandment is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength --- and your neighbor as yourself.”

In that statement, Jesus unites the two tablets.

The life, death and resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate example of God’s love and desire to be in relationship with us. Our God, who is beyond time and space, who, in fact, created time and space, entered into that time and space to bring us into communion with the Living Holy God.

God shows his love for us, that we might love God and one another. The Ten Commandments are not about perfection. They are about relationship. That’s why when the rich youn ruler came to Jesus and said, “I’ve kept the commandments. What else should I do?” he missed the point about relationship.

Jesus was telling him to.be willing to give up everything from this world and “follow me - be in relationship with me.”

When I realized I had a problem to deal with, I prayed and asked God what I should do with the silverware. The hotel had been sold shortly after I was there as a child and renamed The Fairmont in 1965. In my prayer time, I had an image of a communion set that was made for me a number of years ago. I saw the plate, cup and pitcher and the silverware along side the communion set. The message I got is that the silverware is a reminder of my sinful nature. But the Good News is greater than my sin. As 1 John 1:9 says: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

The plate, cup and pitcher represent the reconciling work of Jesus. I can come to the table in communion with Jesus because my sin is cleansed in the blood of the lamb. No matter what our sin is --- God’s Grace is sufficient. We just need to acknowledge our sins/our sinful nature to God and seek to be changed by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes, though, we have reconciling or restoration work to do. Maybe we need to apologize to someone --- or do more than apologize. I’m trying to give back what I took. I’ve left messages and have been shuffled from one person to the next trying to find out whom to resolve this with. The problem is that the new, third owner is in the process of rebuilding the hotel after the devastation from Hurricane Katrina. The hotel isn’t open yet. But what’s interesting is that the new owner is going to bring back the original name --- The Roosevelt.

While I wait for someone to return my calls, I’ve taken a picture of the silverware with my communion set. It’s a reminder that imbedded in our human nature --- is our sinful nature. There is always a need to do our spiritual spring-cleaning – all year long.

We all have sinned. We may have sins that have been buried away and forgotten. Or we may have sins that we secretly struggle with. What is buried in the bottom drawer of your heart and life?

We all need grace. Thanks be to God --- Jesus is our hope! The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is freely given to those who ask. And for those who seek to follow Him, we will sit in communion
at the Great Wedding Banquet of the Lamb --- our hope fulfilled.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Surprising Grace

Have you ever had one of those days when you just didn't seem to be all there? Everyday tasks seem so much harder? That was my day yesterday. I woke still worn out from the day before and feeling like I was on the verge of a cold. It didn't help that it was time to spring forward for daylight savings time. I could have used another hour of sleep.

I had plans to attend a concert with friends in the evening and I seriously considered canceling out. The featured artist was to be Chris Tomlin - one of my favorite singer/songwriters. I have a number of his tunes on my ipod. But I was more inclined to go to bed early and call it a day...not just because I was tired, but because I just wanted to put the day behind me. Tomorrow would be a new day. I could always listen to my ipod.

I chose to push through my malaise and make the 45 minute drive to the arena.

It's been years (many years) since I've been to a concert of this kind. I naively thought I was going to listen to some music. What was I thinking? It was three hours of worship...and a lot of that was standing. They made it so easy for the 6,000 plus folks packed into the ShoWare Center. The lyrics were displayed on the two gigantic screens bracketing the stage.

I admit, it took me a few songs to make the transition. I even turned to one of my friends and said I hoped we weren't going to be standing all night. But my fatigue and malaise seemed to melt away as I sang from my heart.

There's something very special in the experience of lifting your voice in praise with thousands of others. Scripture tells us that God inhabits the praise of God's people. God's loving presence filled the place. After a lackluster day, God surprised me with a wonderful experience of Grace. It would have been so much easier to stay home. I'm glad I chose the discomfort of getting out, so that I could be surprised and renewed by Grace. It was a new day last night...I didn't have to wait for the dawn.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Declaring the Glory of God

Last night as I drove home from church I turned on the radio and heard a new rendition of the song, "How Great Thou Art". That song has always moved me. The swells in the music lift my spirit along with the lyrics that speak for my heart:

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!

When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!

And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing;
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!

When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation,
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.
Then I shall bow, in humble adoration,
And then proclaim: "My God, how great Thou art!"

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!

When I hear this song I think of a time when I followed a dream and visited a "mountain" in South Dakota: Bear Butte. Some people call it a mountain, some a hill. Coming from the Pacific NW, it looks more like a hill. However, it is considered a sacred mountain to many Native Americans. That was why I was visiting. I was seeking to discern what I perceived was God's invitation to spend time with native people and learn with them.

When I arrived, I spoke with the park ranger who asked what had brought me to Bear Butte. After telling him, he suggested that I put up my tent in the camping area that was set aside for the Native Americans who came there for spiritual reasons. As I set up my camping site, I was moved by what I heard. Across the field was a Native woman sitting in the field playing her guitar and singing, "How Great Thou Art". We had a wonderful time visiting before I left to do my prayer hike to the top of the mountain. My prayer included parts of Psalm 51 (praying that God would cleanse me from my sins and create a new heart within me) as well as repeating Psalm 24 over and over:

The earth is the Lord's and everything in it,
the world and all who live in it;
for he founded it upon the seas
and established upon the waters.

Who may ascend the hill of the Lord?
Who may stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to an idol
or swear by what is false.

He will receive a blessing from the Lord
and vindication from God his Savior.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
who seek your face, O God of Jacob.

Lift up your heads, O you gates;
be lifted up, you ancient doors,
that the King of Glory may come in.
Who is this King of Glory?
The Lord strong and mighty,
the Lord mighty in battle.

Lift up your heads, O you gates,
lift them up, you ancient doors,
that the King of Glory may come in.
Who is this King of Glory?
The Lord Almighty ---
he is the King of Glory.

The day had been a beautiful, clear summer day as I hiked and prayed. That night as I lay in my sleeping bag, a storm came up. It was not your typical midwestern thunderstorm. It didn't rain. Instead, there was an incredible lightning storm that sat over the mountain all night. The power was both awe inspiring and frightening. The ground beneath me was literally churning. I saw the lightning not only move down from the sky, but also in the reverse direction. It was a very strange sight.

The experience reminds me of Psalm 19: The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

I pray this Lenten season that my life might declare the glory of God, in spite of the reality that I am an imperfect person. I value this season because it is an invitation to intentionally set aside time (like taking a trip to a sacred mountain without leaving home) to reflect on what diminishes my relationship with God and remember the renewal that comes from seeking God's forgiveness and cleansing power. May the power and healing light of Christ shine through the cracks of this and your earthen vessel. To God be the Glory!

Monday, March 2, 2009

The wisdom in nature - a promise of hope

I love the view of nature in the wisdom literature of the Bible: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job. It assumes that nature has a lot to teach us. I’ve always found inspiration in nature. To view the vibrant colors of a Kansan sunset creates a sense of awe for the beauty God has created. The power of a good cleansing thunderstorm on the plains refreshes the air and usually my spirit!

Mountains have a special place in my heart. There is a grandeur about them that is awe inspiring! When I first moved to the Pacific NW, I would be so struck with the beauty of the mountains as I drove along the interstate that I would call out to my children who were with me, “Look, kids…the Cascades!“ or “Look, kids, Mt. Rainier!” or “Look, kids, the Olympics!” I didn’t want my children to miss out on the beauty. Twenty years later, I haven’t lost that sense of awe.

I never want to lose that sense of awe for the beauty of nature. And I as I reflect on this Lenten season, my prayer is that my sense of awe might increase for the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the hope of renewal and new life that it brings. In this difficult time in our society when many people, including my family, wonder what will happen to our jobs or our loved ones’ jobs, the promise of spring…the promise of renewal…is a promise of hope that we need.