The Church’s Favorite Color

the Fourth Sunday of Lent
March 22nd, 2020

Today’s Readings are:
1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

If you don’t have a Bible in front of you, click here to see these readings.

As a father and as a priest, I end up talking about colors a lot. I have two little girls at home, and it seems like we’re always discussing what our favorite color is. Gwendolyn’s began as orange, then it was pink, or purple, and now it’s beige. And Fiona, who’s almost two and just beginning to talk, doesn’t have a favorite color. So we guess at it: will it be red? or yellow? or grey or beige or rainbow? Mine? It’s green (the best color).

The church has favorite colors, too. And, just like our favorite color might tell us something about a person, church colors have really deep meaning. White is the color of Easter and Christmas, because white is a color of newness and hope. Purple, like I’m wearing now during Lent, is the color of penitence. Green is the color of that long, growing period of ordinary time, when we nurture the life of Christ within ourselves and hope to plan God’s seed of hope and love in the world.

And there’s one color that we don’t see much, and that’s rose or pink. It’s the color of joy, and, even though we don’t see it much, it’s one of the most important colors. There are two rose days of the year, and they’re in Advent and Lent, those times when we Christians are asked to prepare, to slow down, to reflect on our lives, our relationships with one another, and our relationship with God.

And if you’ve ever given something up for Lent, you know that Lent can be tough. I once gave up sleeping in for Lent, and while everything was all fine and peachy-keen on days when I had work, it was really hard to pull myself out of bed on the weekends. And so on Saturday mornings I would lift my voice to God and cry, “Why, O Lord! Why did I promise to get up at such a decent hour!”

I jest, for many of the things we give up are much more difficult than just sleeping in. For in Lent we’re turning away from the bright and shiny things in our lives that steal so much of our attention, and we reflect on what really matters: our family, our friends, loving our neighbor, and God. And while we might, after Lent, turn back to those things like chocolate and television, during Lent we’ve done without and, hopefully, made our bonds with family, friend, and God stronger. But this work is tough. Self-denial isn’t easy. But it’s good and it’s important work to live more hopefully and a more fully life-filled life.

But then there’s this rose color, this light, joyful, almost Easter-pastel-like color deep in the heart of Lent and of Advent. Rose is the color of Joy. It’s the reminder that, no matter what happens, no matter how hard times are and how tough our Lent is, Christians are never without Joy. And we’re never without Joy because we know that God is with us. That’s what Emmanuel, Jesus’ other name, means: God is with us. And God is with us not just in the nice, happy times of summer, but in times of penitence, of grief, of doubt, and of sorrow as well. For God didn’t come down to be with us as some prince or some mighty ruler, issuing dictates and laws from on high while he slept all day and ate fine food. No, when God came, he to be in the muck of this world, to walk with the tired, the lonely, the anxious, those who didn’t know which way was up and who were doing everything wrong. His feet probably smelled pretty bad, and that’s because he cared more about healing and guiding people than whether or not his feet smelled. And his word to us in all of this was: God loves you, I love you. And that love – not powers not lawmakers not authorities – that love is what made all the difference.

This time of rose in our Lenten purple is an image of Jesus Christ, who was our guiding light in the dirtiness and sorrow of the world.

Now, in normal years, we come to all this with relief. We say, “Fwew! It’s Pink Sunday! Finally, our priest will stop with the doom and gloom and preach a sermon about how there’s still Joy in the world.” This Sunday, the fourth in Lent, is kinda when we can catch our breath. It’s like lunchtime on a long day of work, or the seventh inning stretch in baseball, or hump day, when all’s downhill to Easter from here.

But these times are different. This year is different. Our lenten fasts aren’t just from chocolate or sleeping in; they’re from work, or school, or church. Our governor and our bishop has asked us to cease meeting in our church buildings until at least April 14th, which is after Easter. Then there’s the worries, the anxieties, and even the fears of what the coronavirus is, how it will affect us and our loved ones, and what the world will look like after all this is over. Any joy we have might feel paper thin at the moment. One of my friends just told me that, even when he’s having fun with his kids or out in the garden, his worry about the future is always at his shoulder, looking at what he’s doing, asking him if it’s all really worth it. Is Joy really realistic at these times? Shouldn’t we just forget about rose-Sunday, Joy Sunday? Isn’t Joy too difficult in times of grief?

Well, to put it firmly, no, for Joy – real, Christian Joy – isn’t paper thin. For Joy isn’t something you just lose yourself in, like a good book or movie. Joy isn’t just that thing you feel at a party or when you’re out with friends, so that when you look at your watch, you think, “Wow, time really flew by.” That’s fun, that’s happiness, not Joy. And those things are important, so deeply, deeply important, but Christian Joy is something else. It’s something different.

I’ll tell you a story. All seminarians have to go through what’s called “CPE”, which is basically an internship as a chaplain in a hospital. Besides the general, good work of visiting folks in the hospital, we also had a variety of other things we had to do. One of these was to play a bystander in some police training. The idea was that, if we saw how the police were trained, we could better serve them as chaplains and priests. This particular training was what to do if there was a hostile gunman at a hospital. My job was, when the police came in the door, to run at them and scream “help! help!” They were training their wits and their focus, and my job was to make the training as real as possible.

At one point, I was asked to lie down in an empty room as if I had been shot. I did, and that’s fine, but when the training began, things seemed so real: there were gunshots (paintballs, really, but they sounded real), screams, shouting, everything. I was terrified. My heart and stomach were both in my throat, and I wanted to slink back further and further into the corner. But I had nowhere to hide, and so I just laid there.

Then an officer came in, checked me, called the room “clear”, and his fellow officers continued on. But he stayed there, at the door, to keep watch. And that’s what he was supposed to do: find the wounded and make sure they’re safe. And so he stood there, guarding me, keeping me safe.

And, yeah, it was a training exercise. There was no gunman. The bullets were just bits of paint. But it seemed so real, and to me on the ground, and for my wits, it was real, But you know something, when I looked up at that officer, standing there above me, protecting me, something else rose up in my heart. It was a feeling of safety, of being kept and held and protected. That officer was there and I was safe. The anxiety and worry didn’t go away. I wasn’t whisked away from that terrifying place. But I was safe, and that made it all okay.

It’s an odd feeling that I’m trying to describe, but what I can say is that seeing that officer there  grounded me. It made me think of my favorite stories, of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, which are so much about hope and struggle and a light shining even in the darkest night. It made me feel a presence of something larger than me, that same presence I feel when Jesus says his great I AM statements, a weight I know now to be tied so tightly to the Eucharist. I AM the Bread of Life, Jesus says. And while that sight didn’t take away my worry, nor did it fill my gas tank or my bank account, it grounded me. It filled me, filled me with something I had known so little of: courage, and a heart to face what was before me. It filled me with what we call Christian Joy.

I’ve spoken to nurses, doctors, old priests, and veterans who know this feeling. It comes when we’re at our wits end, when the end is not in sight, not for miles. It’s a ground that is real, and that is true. It’s that thing that nurses and doctors, soldiers and teachers are trained to recognize and to draw from. And it’s what we work at as Christian disciples when we say our prayers every night and every morning; what we build with God every Sunday when we take the Eucharist, what we’re really promising when we say the Baptismal Covenant, and what receives us when we confess our sins and are reconciled to God: it is Life. It is God.

You may not ‘feel’ that Life right now. You may not feel courage or hope or Joy, even this Christian Joy that I’m describing. But these things aren’t feelings; they’re Truth. Whether we know it or not, feel it or not, can even muscle ourselves up to hope for it or not, God is with us. God is with you. God loves you. Forever and a day God will love you. For in God is our true, full, and everlasting home, the home of all Life, all Hope, and all Life. And that Love is given to you, freely, even now.

God’s Love in Tough Times

This sermon was given while praying Morning Prayer online!

the third Sunday in Lent
15 March 2020

Today’s readings are:
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

If you don’t have a Bible in front of you, click here for these readings.

            There are times when one should not preach from the lectionary. Sometimes I leave off the lectionary for special days like those in Lent or Advent and preach, instead, on the theme of the Church Year. And there are times, like now, when I think it best to sit and think with you all about something going on around the world, and that is the coronavirus, or COVID-19. I encourage you to read and contemplate the story of Jesus and the woman at the well this week at home (I might post my reflections on it this week), but I think it best to sit together and talk about the Christian response to this sort of illness.

            The Word of our Lord Jesus Christ in times like these, and in every time, is this: Do not be afraid. Now, these are pretty easy words to say, aren’t they? It’s easy in the midst of despair and anxiety, to pat someone on the back and say, “Hey, just don’t worry about it.” Chill out, calm down, relax. Whistle a happy tune, and everything will be just fine.

            But when Jesus told us not to worry, to not be afraid, I don’t think he did it with a shrug. Jesus didn’t tell us to just deal with it. Even as Jesus went to Calvary to be nailed to the Cross, carrying the weight of the world on his back, he didn’t tell us all to grin and bear it. “Don’t worry” doesn’t mean “just pretend it’s not a problem.”

            Now, I’m not a psychologist. I’m not schooled in the mental make-up of people, much less anxiety within the human body. I studied literature, poetry, and theology, and while those studies give me specific insight into the human make-up, I’m not a doctor. But I am a priest, I am a fellow Christian with all of you, and I also follow our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And so I say, with our Lord, we cannot enter this, or anything, with fear.

            The big picture, that we must always remember, is that we have put our faith in a God who holds us in Love. That doesn’t mean that, if we have enough faith, we’ll be saved from any trouble we encounter. Those saints with the deepest faith often faced the most desperate times, and we must remember that Jesus Christ, whose faith was greater than any, and for whom God was closest, faced the Cross. Faith does not get us out of trouble but reminds us that, even in difficult times, God is with us. And God will continue to be with us through thick and thin, whether these times worsen or get better. And that faith reminds us that, even at our deaths, whenever or by whatever means they come, God will be waiting with us to bring us home. That is the promise that God gave us in Jesus Christ, that our home, our True Home, is in the Light and Love of the next world. We need not be afraid.

            But looking to the joys of Heaven isn’t the only thing Christians do. We also look to the pain and suffering of this world, and especially to those who are in pain and who are suffering, in this world. We look to how to deal with problems like the coronavirus rationally and in the hope – the real hope – that we can do something good in all this. Part of this is listening to health officials (not op-ed articles, not Facebook posts, but real, honest health officials) about how to handle this situation. You know, wash your hands, don’t touch your face, and all that. These are good things to do anyway, so do listen.

            Health officials are also encouraging what is being called “social distancing”, not just staying home if you’re sick but actually not going out as much even if you aren’t sick. Go out for essentials, but be careful of being around too many crowds, especially if you’re one of those who are at risk. And this is good advice (and I’m told by health officials, it’s really good advice), but there’s a spiritual element here that we need to be cautious of.

            Christianity is built on community. We are not a bunch of individuals running around, all of us praying to Jesus in our own way. Jesus isn’t just our personal savior; Jesus is the savior of all humanity. We’re the Church, a community of people bound together not just by a common creed or way of life but by the Holy Spirit himself. We gather together on Sundays to pray not because we really like coffee hour or our pew is actually pretty comfortable but because Christians have always gotten together to pray. And they’ve gotten together to pray because the Spirit brings us closer and forms us into and as a community.

            But health officials are encouraging us to avoid crowds, and there is a possibility that Bishop Michael may ask all churches in the diocese to stop gathering for worship. And as we follow the directions of professionals and our leaders, let us not forget the importance of that community. While we pray by ourselves, remember that we are never truly praying alone. There are countless Christians all throughout the world who are also praying, and many of them are praying for the same things. The Church, capital C, is larger than just this community, and it expands beyond this hour from 9:30 to 10:30 each Sunday morning. We are bound together, we Christians, by more than just our social connections. We are bound by the Holy Spirit, and nothing, nothing, nothing can ever break that bond.

            There are a few things that I’ll be setting up over the next week. I’m going to encourage everyone to join a prayer chain, where we pray for one or two others in the church and know that they’re praying for us. I’ll be posting reflections online and through email, and I may even do some of the offices online with all of you. The diocese is setting up online church services as well, and I’ll be sending these around. And I will always be open to your calls, so let me know if you ever need me.

            Trying times are difficult, but trying times call for holy measures. We Christians have more than just our own faith behind us; we have the faith of the whole Church, those who are here with us and those who have come before, from those who are named on that plaque in the parish hall all the way back to the earliest saints. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who are praying for us, and we are surrounded by the loving arms of God: God, who extended those arms in love upon the hard wood of the cross, so that we may all come into his loving embrace.

Leaving Home

the Second Sunday after Lent
8 March 2020

Today’s readings are:

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

If you don’t have a Bible handy, click here for these readings.

        Okay, so the journey of Lent has begun, and here we are, now, at the start of the second week. Last week, the first Sunday of Lent, we began with the question, “Where did we come from?” And this is a great place to start, isn’t it? How can we know where we’re going unless we know where we’ve been? While we’re starting our Lenten journey afresh, we’re not starting it with a completely clean slate. We all have histories, be they long or short, good and bad, and just because we got a bit of ash on our foreheads and started off on our journey doesn’t mean that everything in our past has up and disappeared. We’re no longer bound to it, but it is still there.

        Think of it this way. Have you ever had a down and dirty, drag out fight with someone you love? You know, one of those really nasty arguments where one of you, or both of you, said some really hurtful things – or did some really hurtful things? Sometimes these sorts of arguments break the relationship, and there’s no going back, but sometimes, when we have the courage, or when the love is strong enough, we return, and we apologize. That relationship, that was broken, is now healed, but the history is still there. Those hurtful things were still said and still done, and an apology won’t heal things completely. Our work with our beloved, now, is to repair that relationship, to repair the trust and the love that were so sorely wounded.

        This is something that Jesus reminds us of pretty often: that the past, be it good or bad, doesn’t just disappear; it sticks with us. He reminds of this while talking about the Law – I did not come to change the law, he says, but to fulfill it. And he reminds us of this in our Gospel reading this morning; he says: the Son did not come into the world to condemn it, but that that world might be saved. What goes through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in other words, is not destroyed and remade but refounded on something deeper, stronger, more beautiful and more holy than we could ever imagine.

        Yes, we are products of our upbringing; yes, we are people who developed and grew because of the history that came before us; and, yes, we need to know where we came from, but we’re also free of it – and that’s the theme of this second Sunday of Lent. And this is very good news. Those things in your past that have hurt you, that have caused you grief and sorrow, those things that you might regret – you are not bound to them. You can be healed from them. That is some of the work of Jesus Christ in our lives, that we are not merely products of our past, and certainly not products of those painful or regretful things that we’ve done or that have been done to us.

        And this is a great, great joy. Have you ever thought about how much a miracle this is? We humans have the ability to grow beyond sin. We often have to deal with the repercussions of sins in the past, be they our own or those done to us, but we do not have to remain in that sin or oppressed by it. We are free to move on through the power of the Holy Spirit. It takes work, surely, but that path towards life and away from darkness is open to us. That is a miracle.

        And it is also, often, extremely, extremely scary. For the Lord said to Abram, “Go. Go from your country – oh, and your kindred, too – and your father’s house – go from everything you have ever known and all the things that have made your life comfortable and happy. Go. Leave. Don’t turn back. Oh, and by the way, I’m not telling you where you’re going. But don’t worry. I’ll tell you later.”

        I’m paraphrasing our reading from Genesis, adding a bit to it, but I think the sense is there. Leaving what we know – even if what we know is painful – can be a scary, scary thing. Do you remember the first time you were out on your own? Yeah, it’s great at first, but the adrenaline tapers off after a while, and the sense of adventure turns (sometimes quickly) to the real struggle and trials of a journey.

I remember, once, I was traveling with some friends in Thailand. We were off looking for ruins and wandering through old castles and monasteries, where the bricks themselves were works of art. Then, as often happens, there was an argument, and the group split up. And so there I was, alone, in this ancient, ruined capital, alone. Alone.

At first it was pretty cool. I didn’t have to go where my friends wanted to go (I was up for seeing ruins, they wanted to go to bars). I could sit for hours (and I did) wandering through these old temples or gazing artistically at the colorful minarets. And then, you know, the coolness of all that kinda wore off, and I realized that I was alone, I didn’t know where I was, I had no map, I knew no one for literally one hundred miles, I was catching a cold, and I couldn’t speak (much less read) a lick of Thai. I was far from home, with no safety net, and I was alone.

Now, you don’t have to have ever been wandering the old ruins of Thailand to have felt this emotion. God may have said to you, like he said to Abram, “Go, leave everything behind, everything, without knowing where you’re going.” And that place may have been where you could not hear God’s voice, or where that presence you always have had of Love, capital L Love, was not present anymore, and you felt like you were alone. Turning away from all we know, even if what we know is something painful, can be scary. We don’t know what will happen. We have no map to help us along the way. Things don’t make sense anymore, and we don’t know if they ever will again.

This is what is called a Dark Night of the Soul. It’s that time in our walk with God where God asks us to go deeper. It’s when God takes the training wheels, those training wheels that make it so easy to ride that bike, but until they’re off, we won’t really be riding a bike. It’s that time in student teaching where, after team teaching and helping out, our mentor finally says, alright, you teach the class. The whole class. And no, I’m not going to be in the room to help.

Because God isn’t satisfied with a training-wheel faith. Jesus tells us that we need to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our mind, and all our spirit, and often we just give God some of our heart, and a little bit of our mind, and a dash of our spirit. And God says in these times, no, I know you can do more than this, and he steps away, just as many of us let go of our kids’ handle bars and let them petal that bike on their own. That doesn’t mean that we’re not still standing there, praying to high heaven that our kids will really learn how to ride that bike, and ready in a jiffy to rush up and help if that bike crashes – but God wants us to petal that bike.

There are two things to say about this, and then I’m done. First, we should be careful not to confuse real despair with a dark night of the soul. Sometimes God steps back so that we can grow; sometimes we fall into a grief so deep that we think God is turned away from us. This is why we practice Lent in a community, so that if we do experience darkness, we can speak that to wise and discerning guides who can help us see whether we’re in the depths of doubt and despair or whether God is calling us to go deeper. The dark night of the soul is not one that we go through alone, like me off like a dork in Thailand, thinking I can huff it through a country on my own. Dark nights of the soul are experienced alone and discerned in community.

And this reminds us of something else, that when we, as parents and grandparents, take the training wheels off of our children’s and grandkid’s bikes, it’s not so that they can go and leave and disappear. It’s so that they can grow, and continue to grow, into stable, strong, honest adults. And, as adults, we can enter with them into a deeper and more loving relationship. It is the same with God: God doesn’t tell us to go and leave our father’s house, he doesn’t lead us into (and then out of) dark nights of the soul just so that we can be more self-reliant and self-possessed, so that we will need God less and less. No, God leads us through these times, and again, out of them, so that we may mature as Christians and grow into an adult faith. For what God hopes is that we are not mere children but true Daughters and Sons like his own Son Jesus Christ. And for that we walk through the darkness of Lent with the dawn of Easter on the horizon.


Starting at the Beginning

the First Sunday in Lent
March 1st, 2020

Today’s readings are:
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

If you don’t have a Bible handy, click here to see these readings.

We start off Lent in the garden. It is, I suppose, a good place to start. It is here in the garden, the Bible tells us, that our sins began. It is one of our founding stories. It’s one that, I think, we all learned from story-book Bibles and Sunday school lessons as children. This story is foundational to the Bible (it’s at the beginning), and foundational to how Jesus teaches us and what he teaches us, as well as how St. Paul and the other writers of the New Testament letters discuss our relationship to God through Jesus Christ. This story is at the heart of why we need to be reconciled, why we need penitence and a Holy Lent, and indeed why we need, so desperately need, the love of Jesus Christ.

And for these reasons, I want to call this story an important part of our Christian myth – but I’ve gotta pause here on this word: myth. It’s a sticky word. Often, we use the word “myth” to describe a story that is false: 10 myths about weight loss! a commercial tells us to lure us in. Or, myths can be old stories about heroes and monsters and Greek gods with lightning bolts in their hands and little winged sandals on their feet. But even here, we all in our modern period don’t believe these kinds of myths. They’re fun stories that we believe are false. Myths are, in other words, lies. Lies that can be damaging, or lies that can be fun, but lies nevertheless.

But this is a poor understanding of “myth.” People in the past, be they Romans or Greeks or Celts, surely didn’t think their stories were just little old myths that were just around for a good story. No, they believed them, and in many ways they based their lives, and the lives of their entire communities, on what they heard in their myths. You see, myths are foundational stories, they’re beginning stories. They’re stories that we tell about how things came to be the way they are, to explain where we came from, who we are, and where we are going. And in this they are desperately important to know, to understand, and to think about often. To return to our source. And so, as we turn in Lent to reflect on our relationship with God, we begin this first Sunday of Lent at the beginning.

Now, before I move on to talk about this foundational story of ours, and how we can live into that foundational story to know more about what Jesus gives us, there’s a lie that is usually bandied about that I’ve gotta quell. Some folks, when they read this story, say that it is Eve’s fault that Adam sinned, that if Eve weren’t around, then Adam wouldn’t have eaten the apple. And, often, folks then take this and lay the blame of sin on all women in general. This is absurd. Pointing fingers at one another is a mark of our sinful nature: it’s what Adam and Eve do to one another after, not before, they eat the fruit. And if there is blame, we read in Romans this morning that St. Paul puts it on Adam. So if you ever hear this interpretation, squash it. It’s unbiblical.

But this sort of interpretation directs us to a reality that we are still struggling with: we’re living in a sinful world. We are sinful people. And that’s tough to think about. We don’t want to think about how we’re sinful. We want to look on the bright side of life. We want to think the best of us and of other people. We’re told to forgive those who trespass against us, so shouldn’t we also forgive ourselves?

Sure, but even so, there is something not right about our hearts. At times, we have to do a great deal of work to get ourselves to see the humanity in others. There is something inside of ourselves that, no matter how much we work to correct it, always sneaks back up again. As a young man, I had a short fuse, and I’ve done a lot of work to calm myself down when I feel it flaring up. But goodness gracious, if you cut me off when I’ve got my kids in the car then my anger is right there again, fresh and new. We humans have a penchant for selfishness, for forgetting others and thinking of ourselves alone. The seven deadly sins, those mythical seven deadly sins – pride, lust, gluttony, envy sloth, wrath, greed – they’re basically that sinful part of us saying me me me and forgetting about you you and you, much less God, God, and God.

But, here is another false interpretation that many make: some look at our sin and say that we are horrible through and through, right to the core, that there is no good in us. Yet, while we humans may have a penchant for human sin, we are not utterly debased. There is good in us, because God is in us. We are made in the image of God, and while that image can be overshadowed, or forgotten, or misunderstood because of sin, that image is there down at the foundation of who we are. We are, at our heart of hearts, beloved children of God. To borrow a phrase from a popular sci-fi film, we are luminous beings. Our identity, who we are, is simply those who are beloved, precious, and dear to God. That is who we really are. That is who, after the long Lent of life in this world, we hope to become in Jesus Christ our Lord.

But sin is real. Sin isn’t something that we can just take off when it’s hot like it’s a jacket. Sin isn’t just some tomato sauce that splashes on our shirt that, if you pour detergent on it and get it into the wash, there won’t be a stain. And it is, alas, not just some bad political structure that, if we just make the right laws, we can get away from. No, sin is real and it is lodged deep in our hearts. We don’t have a tool fine enough to get it out. No amount of work, no long hours kneeling, no journey to some far, distant holy place can root it out and make us clean again. Only one thing, we believe, can make us clean, and that is the love of Jesus Christ, open and free for all.

And so, as we begin Lent, we look to who we were and we turn to who we can become, who is the person we are truly meant to be. We look with St. Paul, and at the urging of Jesus Christ himself, at the beginning of sin, when that root of sin was first planted, and we turn to the essence of love that is the transfigured face of that same Jesus Christ. Let us put, then, to rest the sin that is in us, and let us turn now to the life that is being held out to us with eager hands. For Jesus says, Take, eat. This is my Body, given for you!

Lent and the Unconditional Love of God

the Last Sunday after Epiphany
February 23rd, 2020

Today’s readings are:
Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 99
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

Click here to access these readings.

       So you’ve only got a week left, right? I mean, you’ve got until Tuesday night and maybe a little into Ash Wednesday, but, really, you’ve only got until next Sunday to figure out what you’re going to give up for Lent. You’ve only got another week before I start pestering you with, “So, what did you give up for Lent?” and “How’s it going? With the Lent thing?” and “Do you need me to pray for you?” A friend of mine, in seminary, told me that his sending priest once gave up Lent for Lent. “You can’t do that!” my friend said, and the priest only shrugged his shoulders. But there’s no shrugging shoulders for me: I’m gonna ask!

       Jokes aside, Lent is beginning soon, and it is traditional (and spiritually healthy) to either give up something or to take on a new practice. And that’s because we’re preparing: we’re preparing for Easter, the time when we celebrate the world’s new birth, the 8th day of the week, when Jesus Christ rose from the death and destroyed death forever. That’s something you prepare for.

       Preparations are important, right? Think of it: let’s say you’re getting ready to cook dinner. Instead of just turning on the stove and going at it, you should prepare a little, right? You should figure out what you’re going to make, maybe open up the cookbook. You should get out everything you need and, really, probably check the fridge to make sure you actually have everything you need. Otherwise you’ll be running around the kitchen, or running out to the store, right in the middle of cooking, and that might mess up what you’re trying to make.

Or, if you’re going on a trip to, say, Portland, you don’t just hop in the car and go. Otherwise, when you hit Roseburg you’ll realize you forgot your toothbrush; and when you hit Eugene you realize you forgot your wallet; and when you’re in Wilsonville you’ll be like, “Hey, where’s my wife?” You prepare for these things so that, when the thing comes, you’re not hung out to dry.

Now, a person might say: wait a second. Father Tim, you talk about God’s love every week. And I do. If you notice, I make sure that, in each and every one of my sermons, I say something about God’s love, how powerful it is, how healing it is, how it transforms us and guides us and holds us. God’s love is unconditional. We don’t need to do anything to earn it. It’s just right there, open and free, like birdsong in the springtime.

And so, if that’s true – which it is – that God loves us unconditionally, then what do we really have to prepare for? Why go through Lent if God’s love for us is right there before us with open arms, ready and willing to heal us, to give us hope, and to show us a light that we have longed for all our lives? Why prepare? I mean, if my children came in from the rain, cold and wet and dirty, and they were sad and alone for all that, I wouldn’t say, “Go take a bath first, then I’ll love you.” No, I’d scoop them up, get myself all dirty and wet, but who cares when someone is in need of and longing desperately for love? My love isn’t conditional; it’s love in the wet and the rain as well as in the warm sunshine. God’s love is the same, but only more so. So what are we preparing for?

This is an important question, and it’s why Lent isn’t a requirement. There are some people who won’t practice Lent, not because they don’t need it, but because their lives are filled with enough struggle and darkness as it is. Now, I think Lent, where we take stock of who we are and examine the health of our relationship with God, can do a lot for those of us who struggle with depression. It can show us how God heals and how God shines a light into darkness that we thought buried deep within our hearts. Some of my own sorrow has been healed through living a holy Lent, but that’s not the case for everyone. We don’t need to do anything to experience that healing – it is God that heals us, not our practices or our techniques.

But for most of us, we need this time. Our lives are busy, and we’re not always sitting down and thinking about how our relationship with God is doing. Often we take it for granted, and we only start thinking about it when tragedy strikes. But think about your other relationships in your life. Think about the relationship with your spouse, or your children, or your good, good friends. These relationships need care. Your spouse may love you unconditionally, and your children may be loving, and your friends may be devoted, but if you take them for granted, you hurt those relationships. That’s why we celebrate anniversaries and birthdays, why we give gifts, and why we call someone up out of the blue. And it’s why we spend time with the people we love in our lives: to deepen those relationships, to further them, to grow together. I didn’t think I could love Helene more than I did when I married her, but after ten years, I’ve learned that I do. I didn’t think I could learn more about my best friend, but after knowing him for thirteen years and giving love and attention to that relationship, I’ve found that there is so much to learn and know and experience and love about him. These relationships, and my life as these relationships, are better because of the care and attention that I’ve given them, and the care and attention my friends and family have given me as well. And because of this care, I think we have all become better people.

How is your relationship with God? Do you take the time to call God up out of the blue? Do you spend time with God only when you have to, here on Sunday mornings, or do you sit with God in your grief, in your joy, in your wonder, and in your fear? How is your relationship with God?

Lent is the time to ask that question. It’s the time to ask God, “God, how are we doing?” and then to listen. It can be a scary thing at times, to listen. Not because God’s going to give you more to do or tell you that you’re not up to snuff or anything. No, because when we turn to God and really listen, when we open our hearts to the presence and the life and the fullness of God, God’s going to come inside. And he’s going to say something, something right in the heart of your deepest grief and your deepest fear. God’s going to go right inside of your darkness that is dark as pitch, and God’s going to say, “I love you.” And that can be scary.

But that’s not all. After saying those beautiful words, those words that reach down to depths that we didn’t even know we had, he’ll start mopping up inside of us, and he’s going to throw open the windows and let the daylight in, and he’s going to invite other people in so they can help, too. And that can be hard. But it is also good, so deeply Good that one day, perhaps not far off, we’ll sit with God in that inner room of our heart laughing. And that laughter will be so loud and so raucous and so joyful that it will shake the walls of the world and echo out into eternity.